Monday, August 22, 2011

Should Fair Trade be Synonymous with Organic?

A small plot of shade grown, organic certified, Fair Trade coffee.
The farmers are members of the Arinagata cooperative in Ache,
Indonesia.Fair Trade cooperatives in Ache truly respect bio-diversity.
For so long I was a fence-sitter on this question regarding a Fair Trade product being 100% organic, not because I was unaware of the harmful effects of herbicides, pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides, but for more personal reasons. I had been raised in a rural community in the U.S. where farming was the life bread of the region and where corporations like Monsanto, Cargill and DuPont were viewed as important contributors to the livelihoods so essential to the local economy. On every farm you could see the seed bags and agrochemicals of the major corporations which had gained the trust of farmers for generations. Herbicide brand names such as Round-Up were as routinely used on lawns in town as they were in the fields that surrounded them. Although it has been over two decades since I have been back, I am certain it hasn't changed much and their corporate presence continues to be felt. 

As a matter of fact, as a child I spent many hot and humid summer days working on my cousins farm. Most memorable were the long hours with my cousins "picking rock" in the fields before plowing, and after planting came "spraying beans" with the latest version of Monsanto's Round-Up for $2 an hour (thirty years ago this was the going rate). The reward for our labors was the notorious "farmers tan" which glistened in the day's sweat when the summer sun branded our pre-adolescence, arms darkly tanned to where our t-shirts sleeves had been rolled up and where our necklines were exposed. Our tan was unlike the evenly tanned "city kids" who got theirs at the municipal swimming pool. 

On the farm we learned a hard-work ethic which city kids never understood at that young age. Your labor was your worth; for generations the farmers of the American Mid-West understood this and judged their kin accordingly. With this upbringing came an indoctrination into a way of life; I was a participant in this Rite of Passage and subject to the same evaluation of generations before me - "Is the boy worth his weight?" Once you passed, you had earned the trust of the family and the community.

In America's heartland, corporations like Monsanto, Cargill and DuPont had earned the trust of generations past and this has been passed on as a given; an unquestioned relationship. So deep was the trust, as handlers of these death dispersing chemicals we took no precautions; we never wore gloves or masks or protected ourselves from anything but the sun's rays, and that was only by force when caught  with our shirts off in the mid-day sun. 

I remember riding the bean sprayer - it was a tractor with a metal frame mounted on the front or back depending on the model, holding about eight seats straddling twenty-four rows - each rider was assigned three rows and as the tractor moved forward we used a long narrow sprayer to shoot the purple-dyed chemical concoction onto invasive weeds or the random corn stalk that sprouted up from last year's crop. When our attention drifted and our aim was poor, "Stop shooting the damn beans!" would be a quick reproach from the driver. When the driver's attention was elsewhere we took aim with our new-found weapons and shot one another leaving a deadly purple stain our victim. Of course we would be reprimanded for wasting it, but after a long day in the sun we still took a chance and took aim. We were kids, after all.

Don't get me wrong, I am not advocating child labor here. My drift down memory lane is relevant to my postulated question above because it provides an insight for Fair Trade advocates to understand: Farming isn't just a profession; it is a mentality, a way of life, and given that many Fair Trade products are linked to agriculture it is important to see that our decisions have more direct impacts on the lives of producers than simply as a means to alleviate poverty. 

Back to my initial question: 

Should Fair Trade be Synonymous with Organic?

I believe this is a central question for the future of Fair Trade. To begin, I would like to introduce an author which should be on the reading list of every Fair Trader regardless of where you reside: The Ecology of Commerce (the Revised Edition © 2010) by Paul Hawken. I have mentioned his work before, he is a renown environmentalist, entrepreneur, and visionary. The central tenet of his publication is the need for businesses and government to change the narrowly defined concept of commerce and in doing so correct our unsustainable, linear relation to the earth:

"We have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy Earth in real time than to renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank, but you can't print life to bail out a planet. At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product." 

Hawken points out that due to the wasteful and environmentally detrimental practices in the current economic system all life forms on the planet face serious consequences. Worse yet, consumers are insulated from this fact because, "The single greatest flaw of modern accounting is that the cost and losses of destroying the earth are absent from the prices in the marketplace." 

In agriculture one detrimental practice is the usage of herbicides, pesticides, insecticides and fungicides. As the Latin suffix -cida, implies, the sole purpose of their creation is to kill. The point that many people are missing is that soil is very much alive with an array of organisms that provide the life-giving nutrients needed to support plant life. 

Thanks to concerted efforts of the major agriculture corporations such as Monsanto and Cargill, mono-cropping is another detrimental practice eliminating diversity on factory farms and family run operations around the world today. Unfortunately in the US, most farmers emphatically embrace yet another detrimental agricultural practice: the heinous use of genetically modified seeds. GM seeds are bred to be resist specific chemical concoctions, such as Round-Up, a Monsanto herbicide. However, the life support systems in the soil are not resistant, hence the need to dump on chemical fertilizers to correct the devastation and soon farmers spiral into a nasty chemical dependency chasing after a nutrient balance that will remain illusive so long as the applications continue unabated.
Contrary to their short-term mission, agrochemicals continue to indiscriminately do exactly what they were engineered to do: Kill. 

In the chapter, The Creation of Waste, Hawken writes:

"When planes still swoop down and spray a field with pesticides in order to kill a predator insect, we are in the Dark Ages of commerce. Maybe one-thousandths of this aerial insecticide actually prevents infestation. The balance goes into the soil, into the water, into all forms of wildlife, and into us. What is good for the balance sheet is wasteful of resources and harmful to life...  

Whenever we introduce synthetic toxins into the biological process, regardless of the intent or original application, we are changing a cyclical process to a linear one... Nature's toxins - and there are many of them - have evolved over millennia as a part of complex, cyclical, life-giving cycles. Even if we imperfectly understand their purpose, in nature these compounds do not break the cyclical pattern of growth and evolution. Our man-made poisons, toxins, and chemical wastes have no such history; not only are they new to biology, but life has no place to put them. They cannot be taken up and incorporated by the normal metabolic processes of cellular life." 

Where do we see the irony of our destructive economic system as it stands?  Hawken's writes:
"The organic farmer who builds up soil quality, does not use pesticides or herbicides, and does not pollute groundwater, a steward who uses less energy to produce his crop, does not exploit migrant labor, does not leave half-filled tins of organophosphate pesticides in unmarked dumpsites, and who furthers genetic diversity in his seed stock. Such a grower cannot come to the market as cheaply as a factory farm."

There is a serious problem in agricultural practices when farmers have the same short-sighted values as investors on Wall Street. In the aptly named chapter, The Death of Birth, Hawken notes:

"Economists sometimes take the moral position that human life is superior to natural life, and there are environmentalists who take the opposite position. This is not a useful polarization. We can't turn our backs on the web of life that sustains us and live in a biological vacuum engineered by technology. Even if God did grant us dominion over life, I do not believe she had in mind the kind of stewardship we are practicing today. In the Old Testament, Eliphaz the Temanite admonishes a caterwauling old man by the name of Job: "Have you listened in at God's keyhole and crept away with his plans?" Job did not have  a convincing reply. Neither do we."
While tinkering with the elements of life in strands of DNA, Monsanto's GMOs have been linked to decreased fertility, immunological alterations and allergies. Natural ( wrote a short article on this linkage in 2008, "Objective and unbiased researchers have recently added to the growing knowledge of the realities of the increased instability and unintended consequences regarding the long-term safety of GMOs."

I believe the global Fair Trade movement must be informed about issues surrounding agriculture, particularly when multinational corporations are a driving force in our food supply. As advocates we need to not only know what Fair Trade stands for, but what it diametrically opposes and why. To view an informative documentary on Monsanto and their questionable history related to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and their history, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), bovine growth hormone, suppression and manipulation of scientific data, Agent Orange and the US government's recurrent role in the Monsanto legend, take a look at this 2008 investigative video, The World According to Monsanto:


In addition to the exposé on this questionable corporation, after viewing the film I sensed that there was a distinct change in the relationship between the American farmer and Monsanto from the one I remember thirty years ago. A change from one of trust to one of fear of a corporation that divides communities. Unfortunately, Monsanto and their corporate compatriots did not draw the line at dominating the American food market, they have gone global. A Google search brought up a Monsanto office in Ho Chi Minh City, twenty minutes from where I currently reside.  

Since 2005, I have worked in rural villages of Vietnam as a consultant in Sustainable Development. In distant regions amongst ethnic minorities where corn is grown on mountainsides, I have repeatedly come across suspicious corn seed sacks and made inquiries with local farmers. I can summarize and paraphrase the many interviews here:

Do you plant this corn? Yes
Do you apply specific herbicides to it? Yes. 
Have you saved seed and tried to grow some of the same corn the following year? Yes, but the corn doesn't grow.

The genetically modified seeds I have encountered here have a suicide gene (again, there is that Latin suffix of death, -cida) to prevent  farmers from growing their own crops as had been done in past generations. Instead, these farmers living on $30 to $60 per month are now dependent on the corporation and have to purchase the seed / herbicide combo every year. Not surprisingly, my findings have been that the impact is not increased incomes from increased yields as Monsanto would like for us to believe. Quite to the contrary, the farmers I interviewed over the past several years experienced increased poverty, particularly when inflation is hitting averages of 12% or higher. 

To observe farmers spraying herbicides, pesticides, insecticides and fungicides in the field, it becomes apparent where the rise in cancers originate. They use hand sprayers and moving forward they spray in an arc, walking through the toxins as they go. At most, they wear long sleeved shirts and pants that are dripping wet by the time they finish.  

The Crawford Fund conducted a Risk Assessment to Human Health from the use of Pesticides in Vietnam in which they wrote, "It is clear that existing practices are poor and there is a substantial need for improvement. There was also information that deaths have resulted from pesticide exposure amongst farming communities. The other problem associated with pesticides in Vietnam relates to the pesticide and associated contaminants at former US Air Force Bases, and the implications for safe food production on adjoining agricultural land." (Both of which are directly linked to Monsanto) 

Vietnamese farmers are much like the farmers of other developing nations - they have easy access to agrochemicals, but low levels of awareness regarding health and safety practices in applying chemicals, or of the diseases linked to the ongoing usage of these deadly potions.

Let's return to my initial question because it involves more than agricultural products. Our decisions as consumers have direct impacts on the lives and livelihoods of families and on the communities in which they reside: 

Should Fair Trade be Synonymous with Organic?

In 2007, I was contracted by a UN organization to conduct a Social and Livelihood Needs Assessment of a famous traditional handicraft village in a farming community outside of Hanoi, Vietnam. Their specialty was rattan and bamboo weaving. To prepare the materials they used a chemicals known to cause cancer. In relation to the use of chemicals in making handicrafts, my report stated, "Considering its calm beauty, (this craft village) faces serious issues in this generation related to environmental pollution as a result of handicraft production. Currently there is no local intervention to challenge the social norms of careless disposal of chemicals directly into the canals that flow from the village and into the fields despite a moderate level of community awareness of environmental pollution."

Reviewing my field notes from one interview with a hamlet leader, I wrote: After use of acid and sulfur he disposes of it into village drainage. He estimates he uses 50kg/yr of acid (bought in powder form).

I was unable to ascertain the specifics of the chemicals he used, however my colleague was able to generate a list of chemicals commonly used in their handicraft production. What he found was typical of most cases. Due to confidentiality of the information reported, I have removed references to the name of the craft village: 

Several outlets for chemicals were identified in the vicinity of (the village). One of the outlets was a small shop located near the People’s Committee building. This shop only sells about 40 million VND worth (about US $2,200) of chemicals per annum. Small amount of sulfur, soda flake, silica, hydrogen peroxide and polyvinyl acetate were found on the premises. It appears that most of his stock is sold to small family producers. He has no information about how to process waste and only knows about using gloves with certain chemicals, information he received from his father.

A much larger supplier was found on (the Highway), several kilometers from (the village)... The wholesaler admitted to selling over 200 chemicals overall but was not able to provide a list. The list above was compiled from a physical examination of his stock. He supplies a number of industries (such as wood industry) in addition to the handicraft industry but the latter is his main market and in his opinion the market is growing. Apart from warning labels (a number of his products contained no such labels), he has received no information about the chemicals and no training on how to handle them or dispose of them. His buyers are apparently in the same situation as he is unable to pass on much information let alone training.
Additional field notes from an impromptu interview with the local nurse summarized the rising health problems faced in the craft village:
  • Respiratory problems from sulfur
    • Medicine ineffective
    • Both men and women affected
    • Mostly the individual who uses  the oven for material preparation
  • Long term affects are cancer and early onset of disease (16-18 year-olds, common)
  • Kidney problems from water pollution
  • Cancer is common
  • Main areas affected: throat, airway, lungs (inhalation) and eyes (blurred vision) and kidneys
  • Water filters are helpful, but only available to families that can afford
On a side note, you can imagine my disappointment when, in the final draft of the report, the environmental and health impact of handicraft production was categorically removed by the UN organization.   

Whether we are talking about the use of chemicals in production of Fair Trade coffees or crafts, is it worth the wanton destruction of the local ecology; the contamination of the local water supplies; and the personal suffering and financial implications of long-term illnesses all in our effort to alleviate poverty and empower the disadvantaged?  

I encourage your comments, thoughts and ideas below. I would also like to hear from the certifying organizations on their views regarding the future of Fair Trade. Note: I know full well this post does not address the how-to aspects; my intention is to simply postulate a question for Fair Traders to contemplate.

So I leave you with this simple, yet looming question for the future of our global movement: 
Should Fair Trade be Synonymous with Organic?

Mitch Teberg, MA

Shortly after publishing this post, I received a message from Kyle Freund, a Communications Officer for FLO - Cert. Admittedly, I am not certain why some comments are not being posted by blogspot despite my inquiries. After repeated failed attempts, with his permission I post it here:

Hey Mitch, Thanks for the post on Fair Trade and organics. I tried to post a comment and I'm not sure if you have it set to review before it goes live, but just in case, here's what I replied.

Good piece with good points and I'll be posting it on our Facebook page today. Funny to see it since I began editing a position paper about pest management just last week. We'll be putting out four papers in the coming months to explain our position on various environmental topics.

Thanks again. Oh and where did you grow up? That farm work comment at the beginning really hit home. I was in the same boat in Southern Wisconsin.


Here's my comment I hoped to post:

Good entry and we're working on a position paper right now on Fairtrade and pest management. It will be coming out in the next week or two. (Full disclosure, I am a Fairtrade International employee, views expressed are my own.)

I think you hit on key ideas here and bring up great points. Responsibly and cautiously used, pesticides and agri-chemicals can help increase productivity, but the trade-offs or potential detrimental effects are great for farmers and their families, the environment and consumers. Plus any use of agri-chemicals increases community reliance on outside suppliers, which needs to be reduced. I think communities would be better off without agri-chemicals and ideally once involved with Fairtrade, communities that are not already organic will transition to more sustainable practices.

Fairtrade doesn't require farmers and workers to stop using pesticides, but the Standards do include a list of prohibited materials as outlined in the Pesticide Action Network Dirty Dozen List and a few other internationally recognized lists of dangerous chemicals. The Standards provide guidance on safe handling and usage. Fairtrade also has an organic differential for almost all products to encourage transition to more sustainable techniques.

With the recent publishing of Fairtrade's New Standards Framework, a number of Generic Environmental Standards have been added. In the next few months we'll be publishing four position papers on Pest Management, GMOs, Climate Change and Biodiversity.

Side note: Reading your opening statement brought back a lot of memories of picking rocks and working all summer long (actually year round) on the family dairy farm where I grew up in Wisconsin
For those who prefer reading black on white, here is the downloadable PDF format: Should Fair Trade Be Synonymous With Organic


  1. Should Fair Trade be Synonymous with Organic?

    YES, and not only synonymous with worldwide Fair Trade projects, also with the whole FT-chain, societies and individuals.

    Organic is one of the key attitude towards a sustainable future for the whole biodiversity that share planet earth.

  2. As producers we can reduce the use of harmful chemicals in production quite significantly, and this is a step in the right direction.

    But what do you mean by organic? If you mean that all ingredients and materials should be grown organically, then in many places where organic materials are on parity price-wise this is an easy transition for producers and they can stay cost-competitive. In our case, our only source of organic ingredients is via imports (VERY expensive), and this would price our products out of the market.

    To make your case more compelling for making Fair Trade Synonymous with Organic, I think the term "organic" needs to be more clearly defined.

  3. Anna Ysabelle M. A. LaoyanAugust 23, 2011 at 1:28 AM

    Organic seems to be the most abuse word nowadays when we talk about agriculture and trade.. It should be clearly defined..

  4. A quick description of organic: compatible with life. All procedures and attitude in terms of producing goods and maintain relationships with other and nature should always respect life.

    I'm not only talking about the fairtrade issue, in our daily routine we should be very careful and aware of our footprint in a local and global scale. We have a lifetime responsibility as producers and buyers, and above that we are responsible of maintain a fragile ecosystem in terms of bio-relationships with each other in this world that all earthlinks share.

    If we keep on producing and buying stuff that have been carried out in a non organic manner with total lack of respect for the environmental we will soon face even more pollution, illness, confrontations and a lifeless world.

    Organic is an conscious attitude of respect for all earth lifeforms and nature itself. As FT demands respect for human beings in terms of work, we should NEVER forget health and nature...and I must admit I'm quite sad and disappointed to read that care for nature is last principle of the WFTO...we all life in this fragile world but we simple are not yet fully aware of fragile ecosystems we and earth are.

    Earth is our home and organic is the way to a healthy home, we must not just think of ourself but in future generations, we have a huge responsibility these days!!

  5. Thanks for posting, dear Mitch. Great that you mention the GM issue and the use of spray on handicraft products as well. A very good introduction into all these gigantic problems long overlooked, unfortunately also in Fair Trade.

    It is not without reason that our project is named 'Fair-and-Healthy'.

    Applause from a dreamer who not only dreams. Please keep up with your good work.

    FM:) from HK / Düsseldorf

  6. Following up Mitch writting I would recommend you all to take a spare 20 mins to see Via Campesina latest video on food sovereignty worldwide:

    The video can also be seen in Spanish and French in the following url:

  7. No. There are a whole lot of options between what's described here and what's normally understood as organic.

    Conflating the two brings no benefit, but it could reduce the amount either is practiced. It's a lose-lose proposition.