July 15, 2013

Fair Trade versus Organic: Perspective from Guatemala

Ruthie Burrows

Ruthie Burrows

Research Assistant

Center for a Livable Future

Guatemalans planting crops

As soon as I stepped out of the airport, I was in a different world. I felt like I was on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange as dozens of Guatemalan taxi drivers loudly competed for tourist business. This was my introduction to Central America. As part of The Volunteers Around the World program, I and several Johns Hopkins University peers had set out to establish a network of individual gardens in a rural village near Lake Atitlán—and I think those 10 days in the highlands of Guatemala will have an everlasting effect on how I view my diet and my food choices in the global food system.

Witnessing first hand the struggles of the small-scale, fledgling farmers in rural Guatemala, I now have a better sense of the social implications of my food choices.

Prior to the trip, I perused aisles in the grocery store and sought out “organic” labels before “fair trade.” I had assumed that organic farms would follow fair labor practices, but I have recently discovered that this is not always the case.

Banana trees on the farm

In Guatemala, agriculture employs about 40 percent of the population and continues to be dominated by several very large food companies such as Chiquita, formally known as the United Fruit Company. Decades of government corruption, genocide, and violence have left a climate of rampant discrimination and abuse of farm workers employed by agricultural giants. Because of two factors—the foreign ag empires and the rugged terrain inherent to the country—rural families who rely on small plots for subsistence farming have very little land left over to cultivate crops for profit. These farmers resort to farming any land possible. Maize, a dietary staple, can be found throughout the rural countryside—patched next to the road or lining the perimeter of a house. With 54 percent of the population living below the poverty line (about 6,500 queztales or $830), the majority of the population cannot afford to buy food from a market. They are imprisoned in a poverty cycle with little chance of breaking free.

During my stay (and despite my lack of Spanish and Tz’utujil, the local Mayan language), I began developing bonds with the indigenous Mayans with whom we worked and lived in my home-stay neighborhood. As those bonds grew stronger, I wondered if I could share a role in aiding my new friends.

When reading the label on a banana or admiring exotic coffees on the grocery store shelves, I now have a personal connection. I wonder who farmed this? Who picked this? Was it a friend of Bidi, the 12-year-old daughter of my host mother? Were the farm workers able to break from the mid-day heat? Are they receiving wages that allow them to live a safe and healthy life? There are many more aspects to food other than ecological growing practices. Just as a community is built through the shared experiences of food consumption, there is very much a human component at the beginning of its journey—long before the food lands on your plate.

When I make my food choices, Fair Trade Certified has now started to take precedence over organic produce. Fair Trade certifies that crops are grown in the most ethical and transparent way possible with standards of empowerment, economic development, social responsibility, and environmental stewardship. For too long of a time, I was under the impression that sustainable food was exclusively centered around ecological practices, but it took a trip to the highlands of rural Guatemala to completely change my thinking. There are several aspects of the Fair Trade Certification program that I am particularly drawn to: no child labor, fair wages, minimizing the risk of work-related injuries, and prohibiting the use of GMOs and most toxic chemicals.

Transitioning to fair trade will take time, and it is not realistic to expect to make all of my purchases based on fair trade practices. I am just at the beginning of my socially conscious consumer journey.

Environmental concerns originally drew me to the movement of sustainable agriculture, but now as I sip my fair trade and organic tea, I’m invigorated with an eagerness to advocate for a truly just and sustainable agricultural system.

Photos: Ruthie Burrows, 2013


  1. Posted by Alyssa Wolverrton

    Ruthie! I am so freaking proud of you. It is so inspiring to read your big steps for a sustainable future. you make me want to travel the world!! Good luck, and enjoy that fair-trade tea. It’s the best!

  2. The good news is that we may not have to choose between organic and fair trade for long. Groups like Fair Trade USA pay an extra premium for products that are fair trade AND organic certified.

    Good luck with your double-major. What a power combination!

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