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Even more coffee talk

Michael Katz
Saturday October 12, 2002

To the Editor: 


Apologists for Berkeley’s coffee initiative – mandating organic, shade-grown, and Fair Trade coffee at retail establishments – keep digging themselves in deeper. Mark Tarses’ letter (Forum, Sept. 26) claims the initiative is OK because it will raise the cost of brewed coffee by only a few cents a cup. But how can you put a price on liberty? Mr. Tarses may value his at only 2 cents a cup – but the real issue is that this misguided initiative would deny consumers our right to make our own decisions about what to consume. 

And the intitative would backfire, by punishing many ethical coffee producers and vendors. Much of the specialty coffee brewed in Berkeley is already produced in exactly the environmentally-friendly and worker-friendly ways that politically correct coffee certifiers seek to promote. Yet its indigenous growers can’t get formal organic, shade-grown, or Fair Trade certification because of technicalities: language or cultural barriers, remote locations, inability to pay for inspections, or certifiers’ quotas. 

By excluding their beans from Berkeley’s charmed circle of allowable coffee, we would punish the very coffee growers and habitats we want to protect – while accomplishing absolutely nothing positive. Rick Young’s letter (Forum, Sept. 30) compares his initiative to banning leaded gas. That’s appropriate only because the hasty transition to unleaded gas was one of the environmental movement’s worst blunders. Advocates let oil companies substitute benzene, a volatile carcinogen, just when consumers began pumping their own gas. Who knows how many excess cancer cases that’s caused? When regulators’ recent oxygenated gas recipe finally eliminated the benzene, it let oil producers add MTBE -- another carcinogen, which lurks in groundwater for years. 

If you want PC coffee just ask your favorite coffee brewer to offer it. You can readily get preprinted request cards explaining why PC is good. If your coffeehouse turns you down, go elsewhere, and explain why. Rational free choice works, and exercising it can help us build a better world. But ham-handed, short-sighted restrictions hurt everyone – including their intended beneficiaries. To paraphrase many Berkeley residents’ response to an earlier government overreach: Keep your laws off my coffee. 


Michael Katz