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Rob Everts

New Legislation Will Hit the Pause Button on Mega-Mergers

For Immediate Release: May 22, 2019
Contact: Rob Everts, President
774-776-7383

EQUAL EXCHANGE SUPPORTS MORATORIUM ON AGRICULTURE AND
FOOD ACQUISITION AND MERGERS

New Legislation Will Hit the Pause Button on Mega-Mergers

In the wake of unprecedented concentration in the agriculture and food sectors, Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Jon Tester (D-MT) and Representatives Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Chellie Pingree (D-ME)  introduced legislation today to place a moratorium on large agribusiness, food and beverage manufacturing, and grocery retail mergers and acquisitions. Known as the Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act of 2019, the bill would also establish a commission to review mergers, concentration, and market power in those sectors.

“We commend Senators Booker and Tester and Representative Pocan for taking this vital step forward on this critical issue,” said Rob Everts, President of Equal Exchange. He added, “We urge Congress to act now to stop mega-mergers until their full impact can be assessed and market safeguards put in place. While independent food stores are being crushed by corporate grocery consolidation, farmers are being squeezed at both ends by corporations with abusive levels of power, from the sellers of inputs to the buyers of farmers’ goods. Meanwhile, food workers’ wages remain low and consumer choice is greatly diminished.“

While the largest multinational agribusiness corporations are posting record earnings, farmers and independent retailers are facing desperate times. Since 2013, net farm income for U.S. farmers has fallen by more than half and median on-farm income is expected to be negative in 2019.

In just the past two years, chemical and seed company acquisitions and mergers have allowed three companies to control two thirds of the crop seed and nearly 70% of the agricultural chemical markets. When these acquisitions and mergers were announced it led U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley to call the wave of mergers a “tsunami.”

Over the last three decades, the growth of market concentration and market power has spun out of control. During this period, the four largest multinational corporations have gained control of 71% of the pork market, 85% of the beef market and 90% of the grain market.

The Food and Agriculture Concentration and Market Power Review Commission which would be established by this legislation will develop recommendations to establish a fair marketplace for family farmers and their communities. The commission would be specifically required to review the impact of vertical integration, packer ownership of livestock, and contracting practices by large agribusinesses on family farmers and suppliers.

Equal Exchange is worker-owned cooperative that pioneered the practice of “fair trade” food importing in 1986. With sales of $74 million, the coop roasts organic coffee at its roastery in West Bridgewater, MA, and markets fairly trade organic coffee, tea, chocolate, cashews, bananas and avocados to stores, cafes, congregations and direct to consumer in all fifty states.

Media Contact:
Rob Everts
774-776-7383
reverts@equalexchange.coop

Of Caravans, State Terror and Climate Disruption

A closer look at the U.S. role in creating refugees from Latin America

November 16th marks the 29th anniversary of the slaying of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter by government-run death squads in El Salvador in 1989.  This past October 14th, slain Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church.  The murders of these priests—and of 80,000 more whose names we’ll never know—were carried out in no small part with the support of billions of dollars in U.S. funding and training of corrupt governments in El Salvador.  The victims were largely peasants and workers organizing for their rights and a better life.

A mural commemorating Oscar Romero.

This violence which lasted from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, caused hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans to flee the country, seeking safety.  It also exposed a generation of young people to a culture of violence and disrespect for human life. Such was the backdrop to the formation of the oft-mentioned gang MS-13, formed in Los Angeles the same year Romero was killed, 1980.  The deportation of gang members back to an El Salvador still traumatized by years of war has contributed to yet another generation terrified by the constant threat of extortion and assassination.

Is it any wonder that so many have sought refuge and stability in the north?

Since time immemorial, humans have migrated in the quest for survival and a better life.  That much is a given. But the daily dose of lies we hear from our president about who these people are also ignores our own role in triggering the decades-long exodus of desperate people from Central America, and Mexico as well.

I have highlighted El Salvador here, but a brief internet search will bring up equally disturbing examples of our government’s role in supporting violent anti-democratic forces in the region dating back nearly 100 years through to the present day.

  • Nicaragua: For over forty years, beginning in 1936, the United States supported the corrupt dictatorships of the Somoza family who used the military to protect their vast private holdings and jail and kill those who opposed the regime.
  • Guatemala: In 1954, the CIA—in close contact with the United Fruit Company (i.e., Chiquita banana)—overthrew democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz.  This triggered decades of mass killing, primarily of indigenous Guatemalans, the staggering toll of which remains very present today.
  • Honduras: As recently as 2009, the United States recognized the coup which overthrew democratically elected president Mel Zelaya.  Our country then recognized his re-election amidst evidence of massive fraud last November.  These events have triggered assassinations by death squads acting with impunity of hundreds of activists including the internationally recognized indigenous leader and grassroots environmentalist activist Berta Caceres.

 

Besides our fundamental support for human rights and economic justice, why is Equal Exchange dedicating this space to this topic?  It is because many of the small farmers we work with in all these countries are victims of our government’s policies. As Green Coffee Buyer Carly Kadlec wrote last December,

“This week I was supposed to visit our producer partners at Café Orgánico Marcala S.A. (COMSA) in Marcala, La Paz, Honduras, along with Equal Exchange Coffee Quality Manager Beth Ann Caspersen, to discuss milling practices, contracts, and ongoing project work with our counterparts at COMSA. However, due to political unrest we decided to reschedule our trip so as not to put any of our partners at risk, and recognizing that our work could be put on hold while the Honduran people are fighting for democracy.”

Similarly, our Director of Purchasing and Production, Todd Caspersen, reports that our partners at the Las Colinas Cooperative in Tacuba, El Salvador have informed us it is no longer safe for us to visit them at the coop and accompany farmers on their parcelas, and so we can only meet them in the country’s capital.

We’ve written in the past about the sordid history of U.S.-based banana multinationals like Chiquita and Dole, with support from the U.S. government, have worked to eliminate competition from smallholder farmers while exploiting and injuring workers.  It is against this backdrop of corruption and exploitation that our affiliate, Oke USA, has worked for ten years to educate store owners and consumers to the true cost of a banana, and to build demand for an ethical alternative.

a person stands, hands on hips, next to a field of fair trade banana plants
A small-scale banana producer at El Guabo Cooperative in Ecuador. (Photo by Aurelio Loret de Mola and Stephanie Pellny.)

 

As a reader of this blog, you know that the mission of Equal Exchange is to build viable, sustainable markets for small farmers in a system stacked in favor of big players.  More broadly, we are trying to inject equity into a food system overwhelmingly controlled by large corporations. Fair trade as we live it is both a philosophy and a practice.  It is also a direct challenge to the worst impacts of unmitigated free trade.

One such consequence of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994 was the massive inflow of subsidized industrially-produced corn from the U.S. to Mexico.  The tragic result was the depression in prices for this nearly religious staple, maiz, such that hundreds of thousands of smallholder corn farmers lost their land and saw no alternative for economic survival but migrating north in search of a better life.

Finally, as we seek to honestly account for the role the United States has played in provoking emigration from Central America and Mexico, we have to recognize the devastating impact of climate change.  While our country has historically been by far the largest contributor to the warming of the planet, we have only recently experienced its devastating impact as manifested by extreme weather events. But for many years, small farming communities around the world—communities that have contributed little to the problem—have lived at the mercy of increasingly frequent, unnatural weather extremes.  Many of our partners, from cacao producers in Peru to coffee growers in southern Mexico to rooibos farmers in South Africa and cashew growers in El Salvador, have confronted weather patterns and events that add exponentially to the challenges of survival on the land.  The extremes of droughts and floods, together with the no longer dependable seasonal patterns of rain and sun, have forced thousands of farmers to abandon their land and seek economic alternatives elsewhere.  Again, that “elsewhere” has often meant leaving family and everything familiar behind in favor of the dangerous journey and uncertainty wrapped in the hope of better opportunities in the United States and other countries.

So as we at Equal Exchange do our best every day to help improve the livelihoods of small farmers and make that work viable over the long run, it is our duty to speak our truth as we see it in response to the many crises in the world today, especially those that touch our coop and our partners directly.  The demonization of desperate immigrants and the ignoring of our own government’s role in the tragedy are among those issues we will not stay silent on.


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Learning from the Past to Build Resilience for Our Future

By Rob Everts, Equal Exchange, President

As April 4th passes and June 5th approaches, it is impossible not to take stock in those cataclysmic events 50 years ago and to reflect on what it means to be doing the work we are doing today.

The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, to anyone who was alive and alert at the time, were shocking and to many, a source of deep despair and pessimism on the potential for making real progress in this country on matters of racial and economic justice.

The loss felt by millions was profound; the sorrow, and even fear, very real. Fear for what the future might bring. Fear that any leader who was actually challenging the entrenched power structure would not survive.

While very different, maybe the closest later generations would feel to this combined sense of grief and fear for the future was after the attacks of 9/ll. We have not recovered from that. Still later, few could avoid the feeling of fear of the unknown when corporate greed brought the country to the brink of depression in 2008-9. For millions, recovery from that one has also not come.

1968 was a period of upheaval, of intense resistance, of pressing the system to the limits. And not only in the United States of course. In France, massive general strikes and occupations of universities, triggering street battles with the police nearly brought the government down. The traditional Latin American folk song “nueva cancion” movement which began in Chile in the 1960’s spread throughout Latin America and would soon become inextricably linked to revolutionary movements, which were responses to state oppression and which then expanded to target artists and musicians.

Here, young people led the massive resistance to the American war in Vietnam. The draft provided legitimate self-interested activism for many, but the corruption and lies underlying the war provided reason enough for millions of others to join protests.  The riots at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 were in large measure a protest of the war. But they can’t be divorced from the rage triggered by the two recent assassinations, and the riots and police brutality that followed.

Farm workers were on strike in the fields of California and millions responded to their call for boycotts of grapes and lettuce, while Nixon sided with agribusiness and shipped boycotted grapes to soldiers fighting a world away. The Black Panther Party formed armed citizens’ patrols to monitor the behavior of officers of the Oakland Police Department but became even better known for their free breakfast program for children and community health clinics. Regardless, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called the party “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” and employed ruthless tactics to destroy the organization. The Establishment truly feared revolution and responded in kind.

Here we are, 50 years later. As Rink wrote in our blog shortly after the 2016 election, democracy is under duress in many countries around the world. A year later, we see autocrats increasingly emboldened, firmly believing that the models of governance they offer are stronger and supported by their majorities. Police brutality in our country has not gone away. Mass incarceration and disenfranchisement of young African American men ensures the legacy of slavery will be felt for generations to come. Immigrants are scape-goated for all manner of ills facing the country. Bullying and threats against other vulnerable populations are on the rise.

But thankfully, democracy is finding its sea legs here once again. People are organizing in almost unprecedented numbers. The Occupy movement inspired thousands to challenge spiraling income inequality. Black Lives Matter has galvanized thousands more to end police brutality while showing a staying power that cannot be dismissed. More women than ever in our history are running for Congress, and with credible shots at winning.  The courageous, poised and articulate young people leading efforts to bring sanity to gun policy are making a difference. Are there lessons from the pitched battles of 1968 and the intervening 50 years that we can learn and apply moving forward? Can we avoid some of the pitfalls while pulling from the strategies that succeeded in mobilizing large numbers of people in concerted action?

The moment is ripe for all the great organizing happening throughout the country and this includes those of us focused on food justice. What we are building together through the Action Forum has never been done before. Citizen consumers engaged deeply with an alternative commercial business seeking to build justice in the market place—this is a source of real inspiration to those of us at Equal Exchange. Like any organizing for big change, this will take years and our progress will be measured in increments.

We are holding two Summits this summer that we consider critical building blocks to the movement we are building. All parts of our supply chain will gather and discuss our food system and how we can make a positive impact together, as a community. Our Northeast summit is taking place at Stonehill College on June 8th and 9th and our Midwest summit at Loyola University Water Tower Campus July 7th and 8th. It is not too late to join us for either summits! To RSVP please follow this link or reach out to our Action Forum organizers at eeactionforum@equalexchange.coop. We hope to see you there!

 

 

The Citizen-Consumer Dilemma, Part Three: The Action Forum

By Rob Everts, President 

In The Citizen-Consumer Dilemma, Part One and Part Two, we discussed many of the challenges facing consumers, and many other players along the food supply chain. We talked about the insidious steps corporations have taken to achieve virtual total control of food, from the farm to processing to distribution to retailing. We looked at some reform efforts to rebalance the power equation more in favor of small farmers and their democratically organized cooperatives, food co-ops, non-corporate owned brands and end users.

In this often bleak landscape, how can citizen-consumers come together as a political, thinking community? What can we learn from past efforts, and from the current efforts of others involved in the movement for food justice? Equal Exchange has taken the step to create a community of people working together to deepen our collective understanding of these issues and to take actions where strategic, through the creation of the Equal Exchange Action Forum.

“We need to understand the systems we operate in, and how it can be changed by reform, and how those reforms themselves get digested and weakened by a prevailing company-brand system that is, in many ways, the problem,” Equal Exchange President Rink Dickinson and Deepak Khandelwal stated in Part One. In other words, are there strategies we can employ that have a shot at taking back control, and that can be inoculated against eventual digestion by corporations?

A common thread that appears across these efforts is organization. When small-scale farmers organize into cooperatives, they at least have a shot at holding on to their land and supporting their families. When farm workers organize into a union or similar association, they have leverage to fight for better wages and working conditions. When sponsoring groups organize boycotts of products that are based in exploitation—and commit sustained resources to the undertaking—people respond and gains are made.

What then, would be required for citizen-consumers to organize to inject more equity and justice into a food system dominated by large players who have a permanent interest in maintaining the status quo and a year-round lobbying force to ensure policy makers support the corporate agenda? To bring it closer to home, how might members of the Equal Exchange Action Forum engage?

  • Educate ourselves: it sounds so basic, but it is a fundamental first step to engaging ourselves and others in just how high the stakes are. We won’t find the information we are looking for on the packaging of any brand’s products on the shelves, so we need to look elsewhere, and there are good sources out there. We are attempting this ourselves in our series of blog posts on the consolidation of the food system.
  • Peer learning: share examples of alternatives to the conventional system that are working right now in our communities. We hope to do some of this at our inaugural gathering of members in June (see more below).
  • Learn about the many communities that might be affected by the broader struggle for food justice: small- and medium-scale farmers; farm workers; people of limited means and limited access to healthy, high-quality food; food service workers, many of whom are immigrants; independent businesses and brands; as well as the compelling issues that impact them, like climate change and environmental protection; and find organizations advocating on their behalf.
  • While no single campaign will achieve the scope of change we seek, we could consider focused efforts that can galvanize others around tangible leverage points. This might include a climate change effort to engage others where this is front of mind and connect it to the vulnerability of small-scale farmers in many parts of the world. This will also be discussed at the June summit, outlined below. We could support initiatives of others on policy opportunities such as the Farm Bill which comes around every five years.

A key goal in any of these would be to consider what approaches work best to engage people in the long-term struggle required to effect big changes. The necessary tools and conditions needed to organize ourselves for a long-term undertaking like this are not self-evident. But, we know from the Bernie Sanders campaign and the Resistance movement that there are millions of people hungry for dramatic change and who know that corporate power, broadly speaking, is at the root of many of the injustices in the world today.

An Action Forum event at the Equal Exchange Cafe in Boston. 

If you would like to engage in person with Equal Exchange worker-owners and Action Forum members, we invite you to become an Action Forum member and then join us for the two-day gathering.

Equal Exchange People’s Food System Summit

JUNE 9-10, 2017 

WHAT: This will be the first-ever Equal Exchange People’s Food System Summit and gathering of the entire Equal Exchange community that connects all parts of our supply chain. Our goals are to organize Action Forum members, farmer partners, and worker-owners together in this physical space.

We will be hosting workshops, a roastery tour and cookout at our headquarters, and we will make plans for how we can organize to take back control of the food system, together.

WHERE: Stonehill College in North Easton, MA and Equal Exchange Headquarters in West Bridgewater, MA.

*Food and accommodation will be provided by Equal Exchange on Thursday, June 8, and Friday, June 9.

Learn more about the summit here: https://equalexchange.coop/peoples-food-system-summit

Interested in attending? Give us a heads up at eeactionforum@equalexchange.coop