University of Vermont

Conflicting Views Simmer -- Cordially -- at Fair Trade Coffee Debate

As promised, last Thursday’s Janus Forum debate, "Fair Trade Coffee: How Fair is Fair?," delivered a fresh look at a subject that seems not terribly debatable to many progressive Vermonters and UVM students.

Proponent Loraine Ronchi of the World Bank characterized fair trade as a way to counter the market’s tendency to “mark down” the price of premium coffee, grown largely in Central America, and help farmers acquire the resources needed to make the rest of their non-fair trade supported operation successful. She called the practice a textbook example of sustainable development. 

Opponent Colleen Haight of San Diego State and George Mason universities, disagreed, saying that the practice supported coffee bean crops in marginal areas that would not be profitable without the fair trade subsidy and yielded a bad product, to boot.

She added that the money generated by the fair trade premium was targeting the wrong people. The fair trade collectives and the farmers they represent are land-owing members of the middle class. The migrants who pick the coffee beans, left out of fair trade agreements, would be much more appropriate recipients of the charitable support, she said.

Ronchi didn't buy that, saying farmers with few hectares of land could hardly be characterized as middle class.

The debaters, who disagreed on nearly every point, were neverthelss cordial and respectiful of the other's views, a shocking style of disourse in today's political climate. 

Loraine Ronchi is a senior economist for African Agriculture and Rural Development at the World Bank. Colleen Haight is an assistant professor of economics at San Jose State University and economics program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University. 

The debate was moderated by Marselis Parsons, longtime former news director and evening news anchor at WCAX. 

The goal of the Janus Forum debate series, launched in 2008, is to stimulate reasoned discussion on important social and economic issues facing society. The debates stress the contrast and relative effectiveness of solutions that rely on freedom of individual choice as opposed to governmental or regulatory-based approaches to problems.