Today’s Santa Barbara Independent published one of the more informed, and hence balanced, views of Fair Trade coffee I’ve seen in the past year: The Santa Barbara Independent :: cover story :: Bean Counting. By choosing Fair Trade coffee, you’re essentially outsourcing your ethical decisions to a third party proxy. All is well and good if that third party complies with your interests and intentions. But world economics never turns out to be all that simple.

Complicating matters further is a recent USDA ruling that, according to Salon, could eliminate virtually all small scale and family farms from qualifying for an organic designation in the U.S. market: Is this the end of organic coffee? | Salon Life. With new government requirements for annual inspections of all co-ops to qualify for the organic label, the increased certification costs may be too prohibitive for smaller producers.

Although smaller doesn’t necessarily mean better, it’s becoming clear that designations such as organic and Fair Trade are no longer tools for recognizing and supporting high quality family farms and small producers — which is how some original proponents envisioned these labels. The corporate co-option of these labels is becoming so complete that they may soon be more effective as promotional tools for mass producers than they will be for the little guys.

UPDATE: May 3, 2007
The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) has apparently backed down from its proposed certification procedure changes. These changes would have made the “organic” coffee label prohibitable for all but the wealthiest growers: The sweet smell of an organic coffee victory | Gristmill: The environmental news blog | Grist.