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Stark wants government to serve fair trade coffee
Plan would help farmers hurt by price collapse

Edward Epstein, Chronicle Washington Bureau
Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Washington -- East Bay Rep. Pete Stark wants to give the fair trade coffee movement a jolt forward by encouraging the federal government to serve only coffee made from beans that give farmers a fair price.

The Fremont Democrat's resolution is the latest step in a long-running campaign to get a better financial deal for the world's 25 million beleaguered coffee producers, who have suffered from sharply falling prices that have impoverished many of them.

While the world market price for coffee has fallen to around 50 cents a pound, the fair trade movement guarantees farmers a price of $1.26 a pound, say organizers.

Perhaps the Bay Area's best-known fair trade coffee initiative appeared last year in Berkeley, when voters overwhelmingly rejected a local ballot measure that would have mandated that every cup of coffee served in the city be from beans that are fair trade, shade-grown or organic. Fair trade coffee is available at many coffee sellers and on several University of California campuses, among other places.

Chef Alice Waters' Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley serves only fair trade coffee.

Stark's proposal takes a gentler approach, saying that "the legislative and executive branches of the federal government have a responsibility to set a high standard of ethics with regard to their economic activities" and should offer fair trade coffee at all their facilities, from the White House and the Capitol to military bases, national parks, federal hospitals and prisons. But it doesn't require that such coffee be used.

With its enormous market clout, the federal government could make a difference, Stark said in introducing his resolution. "This small piece of legislation requires very little on our part and yet would promote efforts to give a decent standard of living to small coffee farmers around the world," he said in a statement.

Stark, an outspoken liberal who just two weeks ago made national headlines when he was embroiled in a shouting match with Republican colleagues on the House Ways and Means Committee, faces an uphill fight in getting his resolution through the House. His 14 co-sponsors -- all Democrats -- include Reps. George Miller of Martinez, Lynn Woolsey of Petaluma, Sam Farr of Carmel and Barbara Lee of Oakland.

"This is an excellent piece of legislation," said Valerie Orth, the fair trade campaign director at Global Exchange in San Francisco. "They should take some sort of responsibility."

Orth said the collapse of world coffee prices has largely been caused by the U.S. withdrawal from the International Coffee Organization, a global price- setting group. The United States accounts for one-fifth of global coffee consumption and its willingness to let prices seek their own level has helped cut wholesale prices, as has overproduction, she said.

The National Coffee Association, the trade group of coffee roasters, sellers and retailers, said it had no objection to Stark's idea. The association "supports environmentally, socially and economically sustainable coffee production and initiatives that increase this," it said.

Stark claimed that fair trade coffee won't cost taxpayers more than other coffees, even though growers get more money. About 550,000 farmers are involved in the program in several coffee-growing programs. Most belong to cooperatives that allow them to avoid dealing with middlemen who drive up prices.

He also pointed out that U.S. security would improve if coffee prices paid to farmers rebounded. Many of the farmers have switched to growing coca or opium poppies to earn a living.

Consumers can spot fair trade coffee by looking for the Fair Trade USA label on coffee containers. The certified labeling program, run by TransFair USA of Oakland, accounts for about 32 million pounds of coffee each year around the world.

About 10 million pounds of fair trade-certified coffee were sold in the United States, where the use of fair trade coffee jumped 46 percent in 2002.

That's still a small amount of the world market. The U.S. alone imports about 130,000 tons of coffee each month.

E-mail Edward Epstein at eepstein@sfchronicle.com.

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