American Beat: Berkeley's 'Bad' Brew Ballot Fails

Of all the humiliations that we liberals endured on Election Night last week, none was as bitter as that really bad cup of coffee served in--of all places--the city of Berkeley, California.

It was there, in that once reliably liberal city that voters threw cold (and, most likely, fluoridated) water on a ballot referendum that would have changed the morning ritual of tens of thousands of people.

Ballot Measure O--as it was officially known--would have banned the sale of coffee that had not been brewed from "organic, shade-grown or fair-trade certified" beans. The measure was all set to pass--let's face it, Berkeley voters tend to view the city rule book as a manifesto--until someone noticed the fine print: Anyone who served the "wrong" type of coffee would face six months in jail.

"That's what did it for me," said Orrel Lanter, owner of Uncommon Grounds, a local coffee roaster. For years, Lanter has been in the forefront of Berkeley's "Fair Trade" coffee movement--but didn't feel that a person deserved a prison sentence for being caffeinatedly incorrect.

"Even in a radical place like Berkeley, we don't believe that someone should go to jail for selling a cup of bad coffee," she said.

So on Election Day, Measure O went the way of the Democratic Senate. With 100 percent of the coffeehouses, I mean precincts, reporting, the measure was defeated 22,352 to 9,564 (roughly 70 percent to 30 percent).

As heartbroken as I was to learn that Charlie Rangel would not be heading the House Ways and Means Committee, I was truly devastated to hear that next time I'm in Berkeley, I'll be drinking the same non-organic, sun-grown, unfairly-trade certified coffee that accounts for 99 percent of all coffee consumed in this country.

What's the big deal? Well, if you listen to supporters of Measure O, "bad" coffee is destroying the world, one bean at a time. See, coffee grows just fine in natural forest environments (hence "shade-grown"). But if you're going to make big money, it helps to clear-cut the forest. Those sunny, pesticide-covered farmlands do maximize yields, but the result is a worldwide coffee glut that has sent bean prices to record lows (but has not yet, thanks to those same greedy companies, translated to lower prices at your local Starbucks).

The low bean prices have forced more and more small farmers in coffee-producing countries into poverty, which, in turn, has led them to sell more and more land to the big agribusinesses, which, in turn, clear more forests and use more pesticides. And don't just think about the poor Central American farmer. According to Measure O, "migratory birds have been particularly hard hit" by the deforestation and overuse of pesticides as well.

So who are you going to trust: a migratory bird or the agribusiness hiding behind the warm face of Juan Valdez?

The solution is often called "fair trade" or "equal exchange" coffee because growers are paid slightly higher prices by coffee roasters like Lanter, the owner of the Berkeley's Uncommon Grounds, so they can continue growing coffee in an environmentally sustainable manner. It doesn't cost consumers more because Lanter and her ilk deal directly with growers, which cuts out the middle-man.

A crazy, wacky notion? Maybe. But it's no more crazy or wacky than the $20 billion in subsidies that our own Department of Agriculture lays out every year to help our farmers. Sure, "fair trade" coffee is endorsed by old lefty Martin Sheen, but would President Bartlett really be on the wrong side of a moral issue?

Not that any of that mattered to my colleagues in the media. After all, making fun of "Berserkeley" is practically a national pastime. And when you combine the city's reputation with a topic like coffee, there's not a newspaperman in the country who can resist the siren song of the perfect cliche.

The San Francisco Chronicle called Measure O "a bad-tasting brew," while one wire service said that opponents were "steaming" over this "brew-haha."

Rick Young, the lawyer who wrote Measure O, said he heard all the jokes when he was out campaigning for the initiative.

"The best was a radio interview I did," Young said. "I outlined the benefits of shade-grown, organic coffee, but the DJ just said, 'What if I just don't care about the poor, Central American farmer?' I mean, what was I supposed to say to that? So I said, 'Well, you're just a mean-spirited person.'"

Young said he knew that his initiative would be ridiculed just because it was on a ballot in Berserkeley, but he naively hoped that it would "make people think a little about where their products come from and what power their dollar has."

This raises a question (long asked by this column): What is it about a legitimate environmental cause--whether it's a call to conserve our limited reserves of fossil fuel by increasing the automakers' corporate average fuel economy ratings or a call to help farmers grow coffee without raping the rainforest--that invites automatic ridicule?

Whether we're talking about the CAFE standards or cafe standards, it's really the same issue: Americans' increasing disregard for even a passing consideration of the ramifications of our buying habits.

We buy gasoline, yet don't mind that the money props up repressive, undemocratic and brutal Middle Eastern regimes that don't even like us. We eat meat, but don't bother to consider that raising, fattening and slaughtering animals in big factories is murder on the environment. We suffer from some of the world's highest rates of diabetes and obesity, yet scream bloody murder when a lawmaker proposes a small tax on high-calorie foods.

And we drink coffee that profits large agribusinesses, which buy up more land from struggling independent farmers, some of whom turn to more-profitable crops like coca or opium.

But it was more than just mean-spirited radio show hosts who were worried about Measure O. Thanks to a political system where money talks (and no one else can get a word in edgewise), big coffee companies spent tens of thousands of dollars to ensure Measure O's defeat. Starbucks donated $10,000, while Peet's, a Bay Area company, chipped in $11,000. Another $10,000 poured in from a national coffee lobbying group. The money paid for slick glossy mailings to every registered voter that featured a large photo of a coffee seller being dragged away in handcuffs--the coffee equivalent of the Willie Horton ad.

Both sides said that the mailing was the deciding factor in persuading voters in the most liberal city in America to keep the government out of its coffee cup. But Young still argues that government has a right, if not a responsibility, to step in when consumers are making destructive choices.

"Look at gasoline," he said. "We used to have leaded gas, but when the environmental effects became known, we banned it. We did not ask consumers to make the 'right' choice. We just banned the destructive product. And life goes on just fine."

Berkeley mayor Shirley Dean, who also lost on Tuesday even though she opposed Measure O, made a similar argument. "When everyone learned that chlorofluorocarbons were destroying the ozone layer, governments stepped in and banned them," she said, adding proudly that "Berkeley was one of the first." (What a surprise.)

A few years ago, Dean got a law passed that required the city of Berkeley to only serve "fair trade" coffee in its offices, senior centers and official receptions. "And there was no increase in cost," she said. "But no one wanted to send people to jail for the wrong coffee."

Even Young now admits that the punishment didn't fit the "crime" here--but he said that when he wrote Measure O, he was merely following the city code for similar misdemeanors, like riding your bicycle on the sidewalk.

Wait a second? A punk can get six months in jail for riding his bike on the sidewalk in Berkeley? That's my kind of town!