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Image: Luis Tinoco

Unlike most food, the quality of coffee is quantifiable, says Edwin Martinez. If he and another pro taster in a different part of the world were to evaluate the same coffee, they’d likely come up with near identical scores. This is why Martinez, who grew up growing coffee on the family farm in Guatemala, has a problem with fair trade, the certification given to trading partnerships that guarantee farmers fair market prices through direct profit sharing. 

The fair trade stamp on a bag of coffee is usually regarded as shorthand for “responsibly sourced.” The issue, according to Martinez, is fair trade “doesn’t care how much money is made along the way, so long as the farmer gets a certain amount.” This amount is not determined by a farmer’s costs or quality of product, but by a worldwide average.

So even though the cost of production in Guatemala is 40 percent higher than in Honduras, and Guatemalan coffee consistently scores better in quality than Honduran, both regions receive the same compensation via fair trade. To Martinez, this penalizes top-quality farmers and does a disservice to less developed operations—“Say you grow something, and someone tells you, ‘No matter how much it sucks, I’m going to guarantee this price’ what incentive do you have to improve?”

And yet, Martinez’s Onyx Coffee, one of the most respected importers of Guatemalan coffee in the region, started shipping fair trade last year, giving these farmers additional compensation, sometimes 200 percent more than the global average. “To me, [fair trade] is charity, and I pay based on quality,” he says. The certification’s many supporters point to fair trade’s unequivocally positive impacts—from encouraging organic and sustainable farming practices to stimulating the economy in developing countries—but Martinez’s convictions are a reminder of the complicated process by which a faraway commodity becomes something we drink every day.

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