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Coffee initiative gains steam

By Matthew Artz
Friday September 20, 2002


Coffee activists officially kicked off a campaign Wednesday backing a November ballot measure that would ban the sale of some of the city’s finest and cheapest brewed coffee. 

If passed by voters, the initiative would require all Berkeley merchants – from the trendiest cafe to the dingiest gas station – to sell only environmentally and small farmer friendly types of coffee. 

Initially scoffed at as a quintessentially-Berkeley attempt to save the world, Rick Young, the initiative’s author, says his idea has gained steam. 

“People are becoming more aware of what is happening to coffee farmers,” Young told about 70 supporters. 

Young’s initiative would outlaw the sale of brewed coffee that is not certified organic, shade grown or Fair Trade.  

Such politically responsible brews constitute about 1 percent of the U.S. market.  

Young is hoping his initiative will turn the tide against malicious corporate producers that threaten the livelihood of millions of coffee farmers in Latin America, Africa and Asia. During the last 30 years, coffee conglomerates have clear-cut rain forests to overproduce coffee beans, he said. Consequently the price paid per pound to independent growers has plummeted from $1.20 in 1999 to about 50 cents today, which Young says is not enough for them to fight off the advance of corporate producers. 

Under the initiative, Berkeley stores must buy coffee that was grown without the use of chemicals, in a shady field or purchased under trade rules in which a nonprofit organization pays the farmer an above-market price.  

Young said that Berkeley coffee drinkers will not have to sacrifice taste or price to help the farmers. 

“The cost might go up pennies a cup at most,” said Young. Since most Berkeley coffee drinkers prefer pricey high-end coffee, he said, the price difference would be negligible. However, diners and convenience stores that usually brew store-bought brands would have to raise their prices more significantly.  

Asked about the loss of variety, Young said that although some coffee drinkers would no longer be able to buy their favorite brand at a Berkeley shop, the law would encourage the sale of new coffee varieties that taste just as good. 

Young’s opponents, however, who include nearly all Berkeley coffee merchants, say that his price estimates are off and his politics are misguided. 

Dorothee Mitrani-Bell, a Berkeley restaurant owner, said that because she buys less coffee than a cafe, she would have to charge 75 cents more for a cup of certified coffee. She said she would be willing to offer customers a choice but fears a customer backlash if she is forced to switch brands. 

“I’m all for organic, but they’re going to say ‘You’re snotty’ because you only serve expensive coffee.” she said. 

Opponents say that in addition to hurting Berkeley businesses, the initiative would hurt the very farmers Young is trying to protect. According to Krystell Guzman, director of coffee programs for Jeremiah’s Pick Coffee, 85 percent of coffee sold in the United States is grown by small farmers. To become certified organic, shade-grown or Fair Trade these farmers are often at the mercy of indiscriminate certifiers who can take up to a year to review the farm and often charge as much as $50.  

Young, on the other hand, says that certification is free to farmers. 

Guzman added that gourmet coffee roasters such as Peet’s and Jeremiah Pick Coffee already pay farmers higher than market price to ensure they can afford to make quality beans.  

“The initiative is based on an ignorance of the real coffee market,” Guzman said. “The emphasis should shift to the Maxwell Houses which don’t pay a fair price.” 

The initiative includes penalties of a $100 fine and six months in jail for offenders. Young said the penalties are standard for any misdemeanor. He added that the city could enforce the law by having health inspectors check coffee bags during regular inspections.