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Fair Trade Sugar Cooperatives Sustain Communities

By Kelly Westhoff

Pauline McKee likes her job. “It feels great to know that I’m having an impact,” she said. McKee is co-founder of Wholesome Sweeteners, a Texas-based company that imports and sells fair trade sugar, syrup, honey and blue agave nectar. Wholesome Sweeteners has been instrumental in establishing the certified fair trade sugar market in the United States. Both McKee and her business partner, Nigel Willerton, are British. The fair trade sugar market has long been profitable in Europe, and both thought the idea could successfully jump the pond. They started Wholesome Sweeteners in 2001. In 2005, TransFair USA, a nonprofit organization that certifies fair trade goods, finally began certifying fair trade sugar in the American market.

“Fair trade sugar is more complicated than fair trade coffee or tea,” McKee said. Sugar cane must be milled in order to generate a marketable product. However, she explained, “Once sugar cane is cut, you have to get it to the mill in 24 hours or it will go bad.” Sugar mills are not farmer owned and most small-operation sugar cane growers live far away from a mill. Getting their cut cane to the mill on time is complicated by poor road conditions and the lack of operable trucks.

Wholesome Sweeteners buys its sugar from sugar mills in Costa Rica, Malawi and Paraguay. Yet because the mills are not owned by the sugar cane growers, it also pays a premium to a community-based program in each region. In each community, the sugar cane growers have established a cooperative that collects this premium and uses it to provide financial, social and vocational support to its members. For every pound of sugar it buys from a mill, Wholesome Sweeteners also sends 9¢ to the appropriate community-based co-op. While this may not sound like a measurable sum, the dollars add up. Since 2005, for example, the company has paid over $1.7 million in premiums to its sugar-growing communities.

“Each community decides for itself how to allocate its funds,” McKee said. “In Paraguay, they’ve used the money to finance the purchase of tractors and trucks so that they can get their cane to the mill on time,” she said. “They also started a community radio station, which might sound silly to you or me, but they don’t have cell phones. A radio station can broadcast weather information and community news while a worker is in the field. It’s a way to keep in touch.” In Malawi, McKee said, the cooperative has used its money to install a well and bring electricity to its village. It’s also used its funds to expand local schools and buy medicine for AIDS patients. The Costa Rican cooperative has used its money to replant and diversify the local ecosystem.

While each sugar-cane cooperative has autonomy over its Wholesome-paid premiums, one thing they all have in common is that they do not burn their fields, an act that causes ground, air and water pollution. Instead, after harvesting their sugar cane, farmers replant their fields with legumes, said McKee, to help regenerate nitrogen levels in the soil. This means, however, that the growers must be able to make a living from a variety of plants and through smart crop rotation. For instance, some have planted citrus trees to help provide continuity of income. And even when sugar cane does come back around in the crop rotation, a farmer must be patient. “It takes between 12 and 18 months before you can harvest sugar cane,” McKee said. “The farmer has to wait a long time to get a return.”

Wholesome Sweeteners sells fair trade sugar to jam, soy milk and soft drink producers who use it as in ingredient. It also markets nine sugar varieties to consumers, most of which are organic—a distinction, said McKee, that’s important to note, especially for American consumers. According to TransFair USA, the United States produces over 80 percent of the sugar it consumes. Much of that homegrown sugar comes from sugar beets.

“We have a largely anonymous sugar supply in the United States. You can’t tell by the packaging whether your sugar is coming from sugar cane, sugar beets, or imported sugar from the Dominican Republic,” said Rodney North of Equal Exchange, a cooperatively owned provider of organic and fair trade coffee, tea, chocolate, and sugar. “There are two key environmental issues to keep in mind when dealing with Americangrown sugar,” he said. First, heavy pesticides are sprayed on sugar cane. Plus, the burning of sugar cane fields has led to the degradation of wetlands in Florida, Louisiana and Texas. Secondly, more and more sugar beet farmers are using genetically modified seeds, or GMOs (genetically modified organisms). GMOs are seeds that have been altered in a lab to either be insect resistant or to withstand large amounts of herbicides.

Compared to Wholesome Sweeteners, Equal Exchange has taken a different approach when it comes to the sale of fair trade sugar. Shoppers won’t find sugar labeled under the Equal Exchange brand in co-op aisles.

However, Equal Exchange brand hot cocoa, baking cocoa and chocolate bars are made with its organic, fair trade sugar imported from Paraguay and Costa Rica. Plus, coffee shop aficionados might be familiar with Equal Exchange’s single sugar packets. “The sugar packets are our edible business card,” North said. “Anybody who wants to see more of them can pass them along to their church or favorite coffee shop owner. Our website is right on there.”

Kelly Westhoff is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.
The Price of Sugar
is a 2007 documentary film about the sugar industry that was short-listed for an Academy Award. The film is available to universities, nonprofits and faith-based communities. For more information, visit


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