Thu, Nov 20, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Getting amped over coffee

One small coffee company owner is denouncing large coffee chains for exploiting farmers in poor parts of the world while telling the public they sould buy their beans at 'fair trade' prices

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In Dean Cycon's mind, the low prices that US coffee roasters pay to struggling farmers amount to a lot more than a hill of beans. That's why, from his small coffee company in the Massachusetts town of Orange, Cycon is roiling the trendy world of upscale coffee sellers with allegations of exploitation of impoverished growers. Cycon scoops into a freshly roasted batch, at Dean's Beans.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

In Dean Cycon's mind, the low prices that US coffee roasters pay to struggling farmers amount to a lot more than a hill of beans. That's why, from his small coffee company in the Central Massachusetts town of Orange, Cycon is roiling the trendy world of upscale coffee sellers with allegations of hypocrisy and exploitation of impoverished growers around the globe.

It's a fight in which Cycon's company, Dean's Beans, took out a full-page magazine ad that asked liberal icon Paul Newman, without consulting him, to pressure coffee roasters such as Vermont-based Green Mountain Coffee to buy more beans at higher "fair trade" prices.

The tactic prompted fiery responses from the Newman family, Green Mountain, and the "fair trade" organization TransFair USA, which asked Cycon to stop brewing trouble.

"If this was a lifestyle choice about whether a farmer would buy a red truck or a dishwasher, it wouldn't be such an issue to me," said Cycon, who ran his controversial ad in the alternative magazine Arthur. "But when the price of coffee is not only below the cost of production, but inhibits the farmer's ability to feed his family, it becomes a very, very serious issue."

In Cycon's view, coffee roasters are taking advantage of one of the most depressed markets in the industry's history to make a financial killing. The worldwide market rate is about 60 US cents a pound, he said, alarmingly below the "fair trade" standard of US$1.26 per pound for conventional coffee beans and US$1.41 for organic. At the lower market price, Cycon said, farmers in Latin America, Africa, and Asia cannot hope to lift their families out of poverty.

TransFair USA launched its "fair trade" certification in 1999, and the organization expects to have 300 companies under contract by the end of the year, said Paul Rice, TransFair USA president and chief executive officer. Under the contract, TransFair puts its "fair trade" label on coffee that has been bought at the higher price from registered cooperatives of small farmers.

Green Mountain, a publicly traded company that bought about 9 percent of its coffee at "fair trade" prices last year, cannot afford to make a sudden, full-bore switch to the higher rate without alarming its shareholders, company officials said.

"I think that the focus for current `fair trade' companies is, first, to grow their own sales, and, second, to try to urge those companies who are selling `fair trade' coffee to consider it and get on board and make a difference in these farming communities," said Rick Peyser, a spokesman for Green

Mountain.

In 1999, TransFair certified 840,000kg of coffee as "fair trade" brands, Rice said. By last year, the number was 4.2 million kilos.

In the coffee shop, the price difference between coffees bought at "fair trade" levels and those bought at much cheaper prices is not significant, said TransFair USA officials and Darby O'Brien, a spokesman for Dean's Beans. The difference, O'Brien said, lies in the profit margins.

"Corporations are only concerned with money," said Cycon, who estimated his company will do US$1.5 million in sales this year. "Although I acknowledge that's a perfectly worthwhile goal, it has to be balanced to true responsibility to all the people you work with."

To Rice of TransFair USA, the important number is a company's total "fair trade" purchases and not its percentage of such coffee. For example, he said, although Starbucks buys only 1 percent of its coffee at "fair trade" prices, that number translated into more than 420,000kg last year, Rice said.

This story has been viewed 4669 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top