University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh becomes first “Fair Trade University”

The news from Chancellor Richard H. Wells that UWO would become the nation’s first fair trade university was the only announcement met with applause during Tuesday’s opening day ceremonies, Wells said.

Fair trade certified products – which are produced under sustainable, decent and fair labor conditions – will now be available at university dining establishments, catered functions and in department offices when possible.

Colleges and universities selling fair trade products is nothing new, but the difference in this case appears to be the source of the proclamation and the scale. The magnitude of this announcement cannot be ignored as the Chancellor of a large public university is declaring the campus-wide use of fair trade products. Nevertheless, there are several concerns with the “Fair trade University” label. One could easily view this as another example of an attempt to address an issue solely through consumption.

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Free trade policies claiming Haiti as a victim

After seeing food riots in April, Haiti’s problems are nowhere near being solved. Completely dependent on food imports due to trade liberalization, soil erosion and an increasing population. Mike Williams of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution explored this issue a little deeper.

It’s not completely fair to blame free trade policies for the problems facing Haiti when the country has faced widespread corruption in recent history and has many geographic limitations. Nevertheless, this is the worst case scenario of what can happen to the undeveloped world (it wouldn’t be accurate to classify Haiti as developing) when the markets are open to cheap and subsidized foreign food, causing shortages, and leading to food aid which further undercuts local producers.

Before 1950, Haiti supplied close to 80% of its own food, and exported a large amount of food. Now, much of the population has shifted away from agriculture, unable to compete, and now are unable to afford the rising cost of food. Many are so poor they have resorted to eating dirt. Due to the high cost of fertilizer, foreign competition, and food aid, most farmers have resorted to subsistence farming, leaving much of the country vulnerable. What is the result? A life expectancy under 50 years, high amounts of undernourished people and high infant mortality.

Specialization can lead to many efficiency gains, but specialization away from agriculture is a dangerous game. Food aid will only exacerbate the issue.  The best way to treat this is by governments and NGOs encouraging a return to farming, protecting the domestic industry, aid in development of successful agricultural practices and subsidizing in fertilizer, equipment and tools.  In the meantime, the west needs to look to Haiti before it pushes the developing world into trade liberalization, especially while the governments are acting to distort the market.