Fair Trade vs. Food Miles

My friend Natalie Berg, who grew up in North Branford and now lives in London, told me today about a presentation that she made to the UN in Brussels about Fair Trade.  She commented that many consumers are confused, stating “Which is better, Fair Trade or local foods? Organic or Fair?”  You can watch Nat speak about fair trade vs. local foods here.  Hey Nat, why didn’t you mention your background as a former Rose Orchards employee?

OK, for those of you who are unsure, let’s define these terms.  These definitions come from The Nibble’s Glossary of Organic and Natural Food Terms.

  • Fair Trade Certified: “Fair trade certification allows farmers to receive higher prices than they would in the conventional market. It means that the farmers were paid a fair price for their product and were not exploited by middlemen who pay them less than their crop is worth. They are paid at least 5 cents more per pound, and are able to earn earn 3 to 5 times more, than conventional farmers. Coffee (the world’s second most traded commodity, after oil), cacao, and other farmed products are often produced under sweatshop conditions. Industrial workers don’t earn the legal minimum wage. Small farmers are paid less for their crop than it can cost to grow it, locking them into a cycle of poverty and debt and forcing them to keep their children out of school to work the farm.  Small farmers usually can’t get credit, and can easily lose their farms. Under Fair Trade, importers pay an established fair price regardless of the volatile market. Credit is provided at low rates; and small farmers who use traditional, sustainable techniques don’t have to lose their farms to industrial cooperatives that employ pesticides and aggressive deforestation. The program also prohibits forced child labor, ensures safe working conditions and encourages environmentally sustainable farming methods as well as other measures to improve farmers’ lives…” 
  • A note from me: The only item that I have ever seen labeled Fair Trade in my supermarket is coffee.  Since I don’t drink coffee, I haven’t really been interested in Fair Trade.  However, it appears that the intentions are good.


  • Certified Organic: “To include the term organic on packaging, a manufacturer must create its product in accordance with USDA rules. The USDA’s National Organic Program certifies products as organic based on farming, handling, manufacturing, distribution and labeling practices. Requirements include: no antibiotics or growth hormones for animals, animals must be raised on organic feed and have free range to graze, crops must be raised with no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers containing synthetic chemicals, no sewage-sludge fertilizer, no bio-engineered foods or irradiation, and no GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Farming practices should enhance and preserve soil and water. A government inspector must certify the farm after visiting it; farmers must keep detailed records on crops.” 
  • A note from me: I initially understood organic to mean a compound that contains carbon-carbon and carbon-hydrogen bonds, and was associated with living things.  Oh wait, that’s the biochemistry definition.  Organic farming is different.  I think it’s important to note that just because a food is not certified organic, it does not make it automatically bad.  Many small farmers cannot afford to go through the time-consuming and expensive certification process, or choose not to get certified based on their own beliefs.


  • Local Foods: “There is no widely accepted definition of locally grown yet. In general, it covers anything within a day’s drive or 150 miles. The average food item on an American table travels 1,500 miles.”
  • A note from me: My own definition of local foods comes from what we refer to as “Native.”  In Connecticut, “Native” means grown in our state.  As small family farms make up most of the agriculture in our state, I would generally assume that if I’m buying Native, I’m supporting family farms.  I also know this because the majority of Native produce I buy comes from my family’s farm market: Rose Orchards.  I know that Native produce we don’t grow there comes from other local family farms in our town or neighboring towns.

So which is best?  Well, that depends on your beliefs, preferences, needs, and location.  For me, local always wins.  If I had the choice between an apple grown on my own family’s farm and an apple that is certified organic from New Zealand, I would choose my own.  Obviously… but let’s just realize that the CT apple is fresher and therefore tastes better.  If I have to choose between butternut squash grown in Massachusetts and one grown in New Mexico, I choose the Massachusetts.  If I have to choose between Maine potatoes and Idaho, then Maine.  The same reasons dictate my choices: freshness, quality, taste, and fossil fuel usage.  Not only does shopping locally support my local economy, but my food tastes better and has a much smaller carbon footprint.  Sometimes I can’t choose local, like with bananas.  Which ones do I buy? The good ones, of course.

But what about organic?  Well, I will buy organic out of season.  Usually.  So if I had to choose between two apples, one organic from Washington and one not organic from Washington, would I choose the organic? Maybe.  I look at quality and I look at price.  I look for what kind of apple it is, how crisp and fresh it looks, and how much it costs.  If one looks significantly better, I’ll pay more for it.  However, I’m not likely to buy a Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, or Granny Smith, organic or not.  Why? Because I find all of them bland and boring, bred for shipping and keeping, not crisp juciness that doesn’t last long like my forever favorite, the local Macoun.  Will I buy a Macoun at the grocery store? ABSOLUTELY NOT! They’re mealy and gross because they don’t keep well.  I only eat Macouns when they’re freshly picked from my family’s farm.  YES that means I can’t eat one any day.  BUT that means that I appreciate them all the more when I have them.  AND I’m more likely to turn them into applesauce or pie, because I want to enjoy them while they’re here. 

I could ramble on and on about many fruits and vegetables.  But I think the point is to know your food, shop for quality, and develop a set of your own beliefs that you abide by.  Does that mean I won’t ever eat a Red Delicious in March?  No, I will.  But not without wishing it was a Macoun in September.



Filed under Food, Local Agriculture, Sustainable Living

3 responses to “Fair Trade vs. Food Miles

  1. Abbie,

    So well put! Thanks so much for that concise, precise explanation. . . and plug for Macouns! I was so impressed with Nat’s presentation as well. Thanks for sharing! Is she developing an “English” accent? : )

  2. Abbie,

    Just a small correction on the event Natalie took part to. It’s not an UN thing but a briefing organised by CTA, the EC, Euforic, Concord and other partners. Every two months, we discuss a topic related to agriculture and rural development. You can see more at http://brusselsbriefings.net

    I would also thank Natalie for her excellent presentation and the ‘blips’ she gave me. But sorry, not quite an English accent…


  3. farmersdaughterct

    Thanks for the correction, Pier. I make no claims to understand foreign politics. I have a hard enough time with politics here. I’m a science teacher, and political stuff was always the worst area for me. I can use all the help I can get!

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