“Once a day, give yourself a present,” FBI agent Dale Cooper advised on “Twin Peaks.” “Two cups of good, hot, black coffee.” If this quirky G-man was concerned about the provenance of his cups o’ Joe, he might have been disappointed — only 4 percent of gourmet or specialty coffee consumed in the United States is ethically produced fair-trade java, and some of it doesn’t taste that great.

“Low consumer demand for Fair Trade coffee means that not all of a particular farmer’s coffee, which will be of varying quality, may be sold at the Fair Trade price,” Colleen Haight writes in “The Problem With Fair Trade Coffee,” an article in the summer 2011 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. “To maximize his income, therefore, he will choose to sell his lower quality coffee as Fair Trade coffee,” while letting the good stuff fetch even higher prices than the fair-trade price floor.

And there’s worse news for high-minded caffeine junkies scrutinizing labels at Whole Foods. Even though coffee prices are five times higher than they were 10 years ago, buying sometimes bitter-tasting, expensive fair-trade beans may not help reduce poverty.

“The primary focus and beneficiary [of fair trade] is the small farmer, who, in turn, is defined as a small landowner,” Haight writes. “The poorest segment of the farming community, however, is the migrant laborer who does not have the resources to own land and thus cannot be part of a [fair-trade] cooperative.”

Is there an alternate way for concerned coffee consumers to do good yet get a decent latte? They should trust their local coffee shop, Haight says — some big coffee retailers want to stop relying on fair-trade labeling organizations and start developing their own sense of what’s equitable.

Starbucks has “a C.A.F.E. [Coffee and Farmer Equity] Practice — a program that defines socially responsible business guidelines for their buyers,” she writes. “Many coffee producers have taken note of this model and made their practices more sustainable to attract the attention of Starbucks’ buyers.” Agent Cooper would probably raise a mug or two to that.


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Why fair-trade coffee may taste bad — without doing much good