Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fair Trade, United Methodist Style

The following was sent to the folks at the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the Methodist church. Am I over-reacting?

Dear folks,
I and my family attend the Severna Park United Methodist Church. My wife is quite active and I help out when I can. Over the years I have gradually refrained from attending services because I can't help but detect and write about the political leaning, associations and preaching of our church groups and clergy.

This morning I was introduced to one such organization, UMCOR, and one of its fundraising activities: The 100-ton Challenge. According to it's promotional materials the Challenge is a way to raise funds by selling coffee, tea and chocolate. Supposedly the coffee, tea and chocolate is produced by "small farmers" in Latin and South America and the Challenge would, "help farmers earn fair prices for their crops." Whenever I see "fair" used to describe trade and prices, I think politics. Failed politics.

"Profit-driven corporations have created a food system that threatens our health, the planet's health and the livelihoods of small farming families around the world," goes the introduction of one Equal Exchange brochures available next to the UMCOR Challenge poster Such sloganeering is directed at the those lack the knowledge of recent history or the will to challenge them when promoted by church officials.

But of course it's the evil, profit-driven corporations that have made it possible for Equal Exchange (or anyone for that matter) to travel to Latin and South American farms, purchase produce (at whatever price is agreed to as a "fair price"), arrange for shipping, Customs clearance and direct marketing.

Profit-driven corporations (Microsoft, Google, etc.) make it possible for anyone to produce slick marketing materials such as the websites and brochures that I am using to discourage this fundraising activity.

Why am I trying to discourage a church fundraising activity that is "obviously" going to help the poor, small family farmers? Because there is only one way to "Pay producers a guaranteed minimum price... ," and that is at the point of a gun, literally. There are only a few places on earth where prices can be guaranteed at any level. The former Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, North Korea, Cuba leap to mind. These places are full of happy farmers, yes?

What is a fair price? All the marketing material says the farmers earn a fair price for their products. They don't say how. The truth is the only fair price is one arrived at when a buyer and a seller get together and negotiate a price. Whether the buyers go to individual sellers (you know, the small family farms) and negotiate a potentially different prices for the same produce (unless Farmer A calls Farmer B and tells him what he got for his coffee). Or the buyer goes to a Cooperative, a single point of sale where the farmers collude on a single price. Either way, a price is set. This is what is known as a free market.

Unfortunately, it appears that Equal Exchange wants to be the ONLY buyer from these cooperatives. Where's the economic justice in that? According to their brochure diagram purporting to show the difference between evil profit-driven corporations and the "Equal Exchange" system, the farmer sells to the cooperative (or consigns to the cooperative) and Equal Exchange buys, because they are guaranteed a minimum price.

EE then sells to cafes and stores (note: profit-driven corporations). Now let's visit the other end of the equation. EE comes to the market with prices that are higher than the profit-driven coffee companies. I assume they are higher because they are fair and therefore better. Better prices are higher prices if you are a seller. The profit driven cafe\store will buy from the seller that offers the best combination of price and quality.

OOps. Too bad EE can't be the only seller, too, eh? But wait...unless EE can bring a little pressure on the local supermarket. Maybe with a big enough "save the planet, save the poor family farmer," guilt trip, the cafe\store will buy enough to stock a small section of the "natural foods" aisle only to throw it all away because no one knows what it is or what the quality is and no one will buy it. The cafe\market owners know this in advance.

They willingly take a loss on the stuff just to keep the goodwill of the locals. There is a photo-op for the local church press and funds are raised. Everyone is happy. UMCOR keeps this fair price, evil big food company road show going town to town, like the old snake-oil salesmen, counting on plain old ignorance.

I've got a better idea. Instead of pushing the political fair trade, poisonous profits, exploited farmer malarkey why don't you raise money for church missions by counting on good old-fashioned Christian charity? I think you'll find that it goes down easier than implying that the hardworking, Christians among your congregations are somehow cheating the dirt poor farmers of Latin and South America by negotiating dishonest and unfair deals.

Mike Netherland
Severna Park


Greg Kline said...

Since when do you ask if you are overreacting? Would it matter?

People are overpaying to buy a clear conscience for perceived evil (think carbon offsets). What could be capitalist than making a profit on people's ignorance of what trade actually means.

Anonymous said...

Don’t forget that these “simple dirt farmers” are using slash and burn farming methods that destroy the rain forest and yield produce for a maximum of 3 -5 years until the left-wing supported inefficient farmers burn off a few more acres of irreplaceable rain forest and further degrade environment. I guess that the carbon cleaning effects of the rain forest are trumped by the “Equal Exchange” cartel. I wonder how “equal” the exchange really is and how much profit EE takes at the expense of the poor, stupid, enemies of the environment they claim to represent.