Filed Under: Soft Drinks


Voters in Berkeley, California — often called “Berserkeley” because of its far-out political base — managed enough common sense yesterday to soundly defeat a proposal that would have criminalized the sale of environmentally incorrect coffee. “Measure O” would have imposed a six month jail sentence on anyone selling a brewed cup of joe that didn’t come from organic, shade-grown, or “fair trade” beans.

Three coffee companies each spent more than $10,000 to let voters know that Measure O would hurt local businesses and result in higher prices for consumers.

Organizer Rick Young told the Associate Press that he will try again in the next election. “I definitely will be back,” Young vowed.

So-called fair-trade coffee is quickly becoming a cause celebre on college campuses, as activist groups like Global Exchange and Oxfam America recruit students to put pressure on coffee makers like Sara Lee and Procter & Gamble. Even the animal rights crowd is getting in on the act: PETA started agitating for “shade grown” coffee last month, on animal-rights grounds involving rainforest songbirds.

Some domestic vendors have already signed fair-trade marketing agreements — witness Green Mountain Coffee, which last week percolated a deal with Newman’s Own to offer six varieties of “Organic, Fair Trade Certified” coffee in packages featuring Paul Newman’s picture.

But even as activist messages begin to take hold, some observers are noting that the motivation behind the “fair trade” movement may be entirely based on antiglobalist politics. The Seattle Times noted recently that large coffee growers are being excluded from “fair trade” certification, despite environmental and trade records that are in some cases better than their mom-and-pop counterparts.

And in a must-read piece called “Oxfam is Full of Beans,” Wall Street Journal columnist Kendra Okonski argues that fair-trade standards would put small, Third World coffee farmers in a terrible position. Although “it is trendy to blame multinationals for every ill,” writes Okonski, fair trade standards “would cause coffee prices to increase, possibly deterring people from drinking coffee, hurting demand and poor people.”

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