Boalt Hall Grad Works to Limit Which Coffees Cafes Can Sell

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"Excuse me waiter, there's the blood and misery of a thousand small farmers in my coffee," says a cartoon advocating the Coffee Initiative, a city proposition that may appear on this November's election ballot.

The initiative would restrict the sale of brewed coffee in Berkeley to Fair Trade, organic and shade-grown coffees. If approved by Berkeley voters, local businesses would only have three months to change their stock to one of the mandated coffees.

Rick Young, a recent Boalt Hall School of Law graduate and author of the initiative, said he is advocating that shops use these coffees because of their social, environmental and health benefits.

Young began over the weekend to collect the 2,000 signatures needed for the initiative to be placed on the ballot for the upcoming election.

Fair Trade certified coffee meets the standards of TransFair USA, a nonprofit monitoring organization that ensures participating traders are following guidelines such as running farms as democratic cooperatives and assuring farmers a living wage.

Organically grown coffee uses composting and recycling and avoids using pesticides, while shade-grown coffee is grown in forest-like settings and uses available plant and animal life for cultivation.

Young has said restricting the sale of brewed coffee to Fair Trade, organic and shade-grown coffees would reduce the amount of chemicals like DDT, used to grow coffee, that could get back to Berkeley. He said it also helps preserve and expand natural bird habitats.

But some local coffee shop owners say restricting the sale of coffee to Fair Trade is not an effective way to ensure ethical labor practices.

"Fair Trade guarantees a living wage, but there are other high quality coffees that guarantee workers a fair wage that just didn't join Fair Trade," said Daryl Ross, owner of Caffe Strada.

Ross, whose cafe carries Fair Trade, organic and shade-grown coffees, as well as regular coffee, also said TransFair USA's reluctance to promote Fair Trade coffee when requested and its restrictive contracts made him think the company was more profit-driven than socially conscious.

"I had to question (the company's) purpose in promoting awareness," he said. "It seemed they were just interested in selling stuff."

Additionally, restricting the type of coffee used could affect business because Fair Trade, organic and shade-grown coffees are more expensive, Daryl said.

The extra expense, however, comes out to "only pennies" more, Young said.

UC Berkeley Professor Jesse Choper, a constitutional law expert at Boalt Hall, said the sale restriction is not a violation of a Constitution clause that bans laws discriminating against other states, as critics have argued.

"It is simply a regulation in the name of good coffee," Choper said. "It is a legitimate public interest and a nondiscriminatory business regulation."

But Ross said it will affect the freedom of shop owners and customers to choose their coffees.

"(Fair Trade, organic and shade-grown coffee) is good. I support it, and I use it," Ross said. "But the idea of forcing businesses to use a certain brand of coffee is a little presumptuous."

Councilmember Betty Olds said the initiative is a ploy to drive chain coffee shops out of Berkeley.

"To say that everyone in Berkeley that wants to sell a cup of coffee has to sell a certain kind just won't work," she said.

Olds also said there are many injustices for farmers and that she does not understand "why they are picking on coffee."

But Young said it is important to support measures promoting sound ecological and health practices.

"It's not a question of restricting freedom," Young said. "(Regular) coffee affects people because of the trees being cut down, the pesticides used and migrant birds losing their habitat."


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