Paul Rice is in my kitchen today, talking about his global journey to appreciating organics, his love for coffee, and his surprising new organic obsession.
Paul is the founding President and CEO of Fair Trade USA, the leading independent, third-party certifier of fair-trade products in the United States.
Why is living organic important to you?
My life’s inspiration comes from working with family farmers in the developing world. And at Fair Trade, we understand that a healthy environment goes hand in hand with developing sustainable, healthy communities. To that end, fair-trade standards protect soils and forests, ban harmful chemicals and GMOs, and give powerful incentives to farmers to transition to organic agriculture. Organic is safer for farmers, better for us as consumers, and better for the planet.
On a personal note, when I lived in Nicaragua, I helped start the country’s first organic coffee cooperative back in 1990. We helped more than 1,000 family farmers transition to organic cultivation, and the impact was incredible: Pesticide poisoning went down, while yields and income went up. That experience opened my eyes to the powerful positive impact of organic agriculture on farmers, communities, and ecosystems. I’ve been a true believer ever since.
What was your favorite food growing up?
My mama’s home-style Southern cooking, of course! Corn bread, black beans, corn on the cob, fried okra, fried chicken (and just about anything else, fried).
I’m pretty useless in the kitchen, but my wife, Marisol, is Nicaraguan and a fantastic cook. Nowadays, I’m pretty partial to her famous Nica-style dumpling soup with organic chicken and vegetables.
What’s the one thing in your kitchen you just couldn’t live without?
Having lived in the mountains with coffee farmers all those years, I became a coffee fanatic. My cupboard always has several types of coffee, always top-quality, highland Arabica coffee, and always fair-trade certified and organic. I love savoring the differences between Guatemalan, Sumatran, Rwandan, and other exotic origins. And I love the feeling I get when I drink it, knowing that I helped hardworking farmers keep their kids in school, improve their living standards, and protect the environment.
What magazine, website, book, album, or product are you most obsessed with right now?
Well, here’s a true confession for you: the new Fair Vodka that came out this year, made with fair-trade organic quinoa from the highlands of Bolivia, puts Grey Goose to shame. This product has won a bunch of quality awards, tastes amazing, and, even better, is helping to lift Bolivian farmers out of poverty. So I can’t get enough of the stuff!
What’s the most important news story today that you think we all need to pay more attention to?
The rise of fair trade, of course! Nowadays, consumers increasingly want to know where their food came from, how it was grown, and what was the social and environmental impact. No one wants to drink coffee that was picked by a child laborer or eat a banana that was sprayed with agrochemicals so toxic that they made farm workers sick. Fair-trade certification gives us the reassurance we want that our food was grown safely and responsibly. Fair trade also ensures that farmers get a fair price for all their hard work. I’ve worked with farmers for many years, and I’ve never met a farmer yet who wanted a handout. Farmers are proud, hard-working people who just want a fair deal. That’s why we believe that market-based approaches like fair trade are more sustainable and effective at solving poverty than traditional approaches based on international aid. But, at the end of the day, the success of fair trade, organics, and similar approaches all depends on us. American consumers are a sleeping giant: We have incredible power, we can change the world, but most of us are still asleep. Our quest is to awaken the sleeping giant, because when she speaks, Corporate America listens.
Where do you get your news?
TV, Internet, newspapers—anywhere I can!