catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 3 :: 2005.02.11 — 2005.02.24


Fair trade coffee is for the birds!

Can you imagine going through a week?or a day?without coffee? No? You?re in good company. Four of five US adults drink coffee. It?s our biggest agricultural import. The U.S. consumes one-third of the world’s coffee, making us the largest coffee consumer on Earth.

But the way it?s grown and sold is driving small farmers off their farms, compromising quality, and destroying the homes of many plant and animal species, including summer birds we see in Michigan. This is how it?s happening?

The coffee crisis

Since coffee is so popular, many countries want in on the business. Around 80 countries grow coffee as their main export crop. Some 25 million people around the globe help produce coffee, and around 125 million all told work in the coffee business.

For the past several years, the world has had a glut of coffee. In 1999 Brazil, the leading coffee producer, had a huge harvest, and newcomer Vietnam vaulted into second place. One year later, the prices crashed. Most farmers who own small plots are now earning under 40 cents a pound. They need around $1 a pound to make a living. Nestor Osorio, Executive Director of the International Coffee Organization, said recently, “In the last decade, the major coffee companies’ revenues have doubled. During the same time, the earnings of ordinary coffee farmers have been slashed by two-thirds.”

This is ?the coffee crisis.? The price of our cup of cappuccino hasn?t fallen, but the farmers? earnings have.

Sustainable coffee farming

Until the 1960s, coffee thrived with indigenous plants and species in the rainforest. Imagine coffee as an environmentally friendly crop! Growing with tall trees, coffee bushes fit into ecosystems which support 150 bird species and many others. These farms are second only to undisturbed tropical forests in biodiversity.

However, in the 1960s coffee farmers began receiving incentives to ?technify?: to strip the land of trees and grow rows of sun coffee. 40% of coffee fields in Latin America have been converted from shade to sungrown production.

Now we see some of the costs of this change. The numbers of migratory birds in the Ameri-cas have declined noticeably since 1980. Scientists think their decline is partly due to the destruction of forests throughout the hemisphere. Some Michigan birds affected are the Scarlet Tanager, Wood Thrush, Redstart, Rose-breasted grosbeak, and Warbler. There are many more.

Sun coffee initially had higher yields, but has cost dearly in at least 5 ways:

  1. Habitat for many species is being lost.
  2. More pesticides are used, some banned in the US, such as DDT.
  3. Lower quality coffee is produced; sun-grown ripens quicker and is mostly a more bland hybrid.
  4. Higher yields have helped create the coffee glut.
  5. Small farmers cannot afford the overhead and lose their land.

Your cup of coffee makes a difference

Lots is happening to protect the farmers, animals, and habitat. In the 1980s, a fair trade movement began in the Netherlands in response to Mexican farmers who wanted ?fair trade instead of charity aid.? Companies can now have their coffee certified as fair trade. Fair trade coffee is high quality, in the class of gourmet coffees, and sells around the same price.

Fair trade certification guarantees that the local farm cooperative receives $1.26 a pound ($1.41 for organic), the pre-crash rate. This is enough for the farmers to stay on their land and for the cooperatives to fund community priorities such as schools, clinics, or buses.

Fair Trade moved to the U.S. in the 1990s and is around 1/10 of 1% of sales. It can?t be too hard to double these numbers! Fair trade certified products are sold at coffee shops, food stores, faith communities, and online. Look for the label!

Much fair trade coffee is grown in the shade without pesticides, since small farmers can?t afford the chemicals. Many cooperatives are becoming certified organic, but the system still has some wrinkles. Some fair trade certified coffees will also say ?bird-friendly,? ?shade grown,? or ?organically grown,? but without the certification. I trust these because fair trade coffee companies have often visited the cooperatives and know first-hand how the coffee is grown. But it?s worth knowing the company and their practices.

Good coffee habits

After several months of studying coffee issues, here is what I have heard as some ?best
practices? for us U.S. coffee drinkers.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus