Organic & Fair Trade Farming: What do they really mean?

This term, I am taking Professor Rizzo’s “Environmental Economics” class. If you’re interested at all in how economics and the environment go together I suggest taking it. He gives out these ‘quizzes’ (which really are more like small exams) in which some of the questions require you to do research and read peer reviewed academic papers and present what you find.

The following question was on one of my quizzes:

So, what evidence is there that “Fair Trade” coffee is “better” for the environment? What evidence is there that “organic” farming practices are better for the environment and better for our health and nutrition?

It got me thinking about how some people may not know much about how fair trade and organic practice  relate to the environment. Fair trade is mostly associated with fair wages for farmers but there is a lot more to fair trade than just that. I thought I’d share what I found with all of you about the environmental side of fair trade and organic farming.

Before you read my response, I thought I’d lay out the differences between organic and conventional farming since in my response I assumed the reader knows the difference.

In order to be considered organic, farmers must follow a list of regulations laid out by the government. If any one is interested in all the specifics they can be found here; the document goes into every little detail you’d ever want to know about what you can and cannot do as an organic farmer. Here is how the USDA defines organic farming:

USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) definition, April 1995

  • “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.
  • “‘Organic’ is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.
  • “Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water.
  • “Organic food handlers, processors and retailers adhere to standards that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.”

The biggest difference environmentally between conventional farming and organic is that conventional farming can use synthetically made pesticides and fertilizers. Conventional farms do follow some regulations – you obviously can not just dump DDT on your plants – but they are not as environmentally conscious as organic farms.

Below is my response:

According to the official Fair Trade guidelines for the USA in order to have the label of “Fair Trade” there is an environmental baseline standard that must be upheld. Some of these include limiting use of chemicals, sustainable and efficient use of water, trying to maintain biodiversity, and encouraging crop rotation.[1]  In an interview with coffee farmers they associated becoming a Fair Trade organization with learning more about becoming environmentally sustainable because the information was readily available.* They saw an improvement in their soil as well as their own personal health.[2]  There is not much scientific literature on the impacts of Fair Trade on the environment but because of the product guidelines in order to be considered Fair Trade the farm must have some sort of sustainable farming techniques. In general sustainable farming techniques have been found to benefit the environment.**

Organic farming has been proven to be better for the environment in a few regards.  One is the soil content is higher in nitrogen and organic material then compared to conventional farming. Another part of organic soil is that it has a higher retention of water and has advantages in drought conditions over traditional farming practices. There is also less soil erosion which prevents the runoff into local water resources. The Rodale Institute did a 22 year experiment comparing two different organic systems to a conventional practice. The results lean towards the organic systems having more benefits than the conventional systems. It was shown that “soil respiration was 50% higher in the organic animal system, compared with the conventional system.” Also the biodiversity in the soil was higher in the organic soils. [3]

In regards to organic food being healthier there has not been a definite consensus in scientific research. The main difference between organic and conventional farming nutrition is that organic produce has more nitrogen continent and a few other minerals. In a few cases more vitamin C was found in organic leafy vegetables as compared to traditional farming vegetables. However people who eat more organic products consume fewer pesticides than those who don’t. Even though it is believed washing conventional produce gets ride of the pesticides it has not been proven to do so. There has not been any connection that reducing pesticide consumption is good for a person’s health in the long run. [4]


*When farms become fair trade they are able to have more access to information about the environment through the fair trade program this in turn allows farmers to be more well informed about their impact on the environment.

**This is based off previous research I have done.

As you can see there are environmental benefits to organic and fair trade products as opposed to regular conventionally farming. There however is still much research that needs to be done on both organic and fair trade procedures. I mention towards the end of my quiz response about organic farming and health and how their is no conclusive data. The scientific literature on fair trade and its impact on the environment is also very scarce. In the next decade I hope to see research that address these issue of organic or fair trade being healthier for humans and the environment. 



[1] Fair Trade USA Environmental Standards:

[2]Assessing the Impact of Fair Trade Coffee: Towards an Integrative Framework

Karla Utting Journal of Business Ethics , Vol. 86, Supplement 1: Fair Trade (2009), pp. 127-149

[3] Pimentel, D., Hepperly, P., Hanson, J., Douds, D., & Seidel, R. (2005). Environmental, energetic, and economic comparisons of organic and conventional farming systems. Bioscience, 55(7), 573-582. Retrieved from

[4] Forman, J., & Silverstein, J. (2012). Organic foods: Health and environmental advantages and disadvantages. Pediatrics,130(5) Retrieved from


Author: Gabryella Pulsinelli


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