Guilt-free luxury: Just farming practices aren’t just for chocolate, coffee

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Picture a farm that grows a variety of crops: fruit trees, wheat fields, an assortment of vegetables. If one crops fails, it makes for a tough year, to be sure, but the diversity ensures the farmer and family will survive.

Picture a family that grows only grapes. What if insects, parasites or bacteria destroy the entire crop? Maybe the farmer could get a loan. But at what interest rate? Land foreclosure seems inevitable. And who will buy the land? Another small farmer? Not likely. Failure of the crop means failure for the family.

Does this seem like the Central San Joaquin Valley in 2005? Actually, it’s Israel in the eighth century BCE.

Eighth century Israel’s cash-crop system revolved around grain, grapes and olives for international export. During that century, Israel shifted from subsistence agriculture of diverse crops and small family farms to intensification agriculture that focused on high-risk cash crops.

Coffee and chocolate are two of the biggest global cash crops today. In fact, after oil, coffee is the second-highest traded commodity in the world. And much of the time, the means of production are harmful to both laborer and environment.

I’m the first to admit I’m a part of the problem: I love coffee and dark chocolate. Stumbling downstairs before the sun rises to grind whole beans for my morning brew is probably the most religious thing I do. And you know you’re a snob when you can state with confidence that you prefer chocolate with cacao content between 69 and 72 percent.

Guilt drove me to learn more about fair trade. For a food product to be Fair Trade Certified, it means that no one was exploited in the process and everyone got fair wages for their labor. Being a person who fancies herself a socially responsible intellectual, I thought this a pretty good idea. I wouldn’t have to boycott anything because of social injustice. I just had to be more selective in my purchases.

The FTC food concept is born out of the desire to be socially responsible, but who has access to its benefits? I can certainly enjoy my coffee and chocolate with a clear conscience. What about everyone else? What about those who can’t afford to spend the extra money FTC products costs?

The irony of FTC is that while the intention is to be socially responsible, to care for “the least of these,” the foods that bear this label are consumed as luxury items by an elite class. Wheat, rice and potatoes, the things that provide the basis for most meals of most people, the things that are the most inexpensive, are not produced according to FTC standards.

The biblical prophets of the eighth century condemned the elite for practices that oppressed the poor (landless, day laborer, etc). In their thirst for political and economic stability, the rich found ways of justifying their actions, pointing to the importance of trade and the good relationships it buys with other nations. As wealth and land became increasingly consolidated in the hands of the few, an enormous gap emerged between them and the poor with no one in the middle. The result was instability and ruin.

I’m not saying that Fair Trade is evil or wrong. Quite the contrary. It has made me more aware of the methods of food production. But it can’t stop there. We consume so much more than coffee and chocolate. How can we be sure the other foods we eat are produced in just ways? California Clean, Bread for the World Institute, The One Campaign and Community Sponsored Agriculture are just a few organizations working at these very issues.

My students always ask how something written so long ago, in another time, place, language and culture can have relevance today. They want to know what, if anything, is applicable to their lives. A careful reading of both Scripture and the newspaper often provides the answer.

Many claim to want to know “God’s will” for their lives. It’s actually quite simple: love God and love our neighbors. What is God’s will for the small farm in the Central Valley? For fair trade and the global economy? What does it mean to love God and love your neighbors? It means justice. It means treating others with dignity and respect, rather than exploiting them.

Can you picture that kind of farm?

Audrey Hindes teaches biblical and religious studies classes at Fresno Pacific University. She is a graduate of FPU with a master’s degree from Graduate Theological Union.

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