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In these days when the threat of global warming becomes an ominous promise and phrases like “greenhouse gasses” are creeping into the average person’s lexicon, the concept of sustainable coffee makes more and more sense. Sustainable coffee is a multi-faceted concept that takes into account agricultural concerns and economic realities and blends ecological activism with true concern for our global neighbors. Sustainable coffee is about more than using agriculturally sound planting. It goes beyond ecological concerns to include fair treatment and fair prices for coffee. This is vital to culture, and not just the culture of coffee. In over 50 countries around the world, growing and processing coffee is a major backbone of the economy. The practices of coffee growers, coffee buyers and the coffee industry as a whole have a pervasive effect on the entire society of these countries.
The agricultural tenets of sustainable coffee include commitments to use efficient farming methods that are agriculturally sound and ecologically healthy. Traditionally, all coffee was “shade-grown”. The coffee plant thrives under a rain forest canopy where it is protected from direct sunlight. That canopy method of growing encouraged tastier coffee, and provided a natural home for migratory birds and other animals that are important in the life cycle of the rain forest. It also contributed to the retention of nitrogen – a natural fertilizer – in the soil.
Shade grown coffee is more expensive to grow, however. Because part of the land is given over to sustaining the canopy plants, farmers can’t grow as many coffee plants, therefore there is a smaller harvest and less profit. Once science and technology engineered coffee plants that could thrive in full sun, farmers were able to give over more of their land to growing coffee plants. Theoretically, this produced more coffee to sell and more profit for the farmer.
In practice, however, it doesn’t quite work that way. By eliminating the shade canopy, farmers lose the natural predators that keep coffee parasites in check, and reduce the amount of nitrogen that is returned to the soil. This leads to fertilizer and pesticide use which contributes to poorer quality coffee and ongoing pollution of the earth’s natural resources. It also has an economic effect. While the supply of coffee increases, the demand for coffee has remained steady. That lowers the price that is paid to producers for coffee substantially. In fact, between 1994 and 2002, coffee prices worldwide fell from $1.62 per pound to 30 cents per pound, which is less than the cost of growing it.
According to the World Bank, 17 to 20 million families worldwide are dependent on growing coffee for their livelihood. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Those 17 to 20 million family farms are the first layer in an economy that is based on coffee. When they are being paid less for their product than it cost to produce, they are losing money with each harvest. The move toward sustainable coffee is meant to make growing coffee viable for small farmers who rely on it for their livelihood.
At the same time, the sustainable coffee movement hopes to use its influence to make positive changes in the world. Many of the groups that have arisen to support sustainable coffee include societal and cultural practices as part of their certification process. Fair Trade, the most well-known of the organizations that support the idea of sustainable coffee, requires that buyers pay at least the minimum price agreed upon by the organization to farmers. If the market price is higher than the established price, then the market price is used as a base to which a premium for quality is added. Getting that premium price, though, requires a commitment to meeting certain standards for certification as Fair Trade coffee. Those standards include such things as restricting the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers; paying workers a fair wage; not using child labor; and encouraging and supporting education and health initiatives for workers and their families.
For the American consumer, the cost of supporting sustainable coffee practices – agricultural, ecological, economic and cultural – is as little as the difference in price between standard supermarket coffee and coffee that is certified by the Fair Trade organization or another standards certification organization. Depending on the area of the country where you reside, it may mean paying $4.99 for a can of coffee instead of $2.69 – and the coffee will be better quality and better tasting. This is one case where a difference of price is makes a difference to more than your pocket. Or, to quote one coffee roaster who uses only Fair Trade certified coffee in his blends, “Your change fuels change for the better”.