, there is increased chaos all over the world. For several weeks, the media has reported on whether to wage war in Iraq, or continue to attempt peaceful negotiations… on the front page of the New York Times, there is a picture of poverty stricken children and families living in a pocket of New Jersey near the New York state line… a heart-wrenching article on the starving coffee farmers in Nicaragua distributed by the Associated Press reminds us of our obligation to our planet…Willie Nelson and other celebrities hold their 15th Farm Aid benefit concert for suffering American family farmers and the future of sustainable food production. All this and more…and we, in the coffee industry, struggle to grasp the definition of sustainable coffee and how to work together in carving a cohesive global plan.
Remember just a few years ago when the coffee industry was trying to figure out how to resolve the issues of our fragmented industry…i.e., specialty versus gourmet versus premium versus commercial? That topic seems menial when comparing it to the future life or death of the entire coffee industry.
At the heart of it all are the producing countries. It’s not all about price, either. It’s about long-term sustainability for lifestyles. Without a comprehensive approach, there is no future without addressing all agricultural and corporate entities. Remember the keynote address from Paul Hawken at the SCAA Conference several years ago? He wasn’t just talking about coffee; he was talking about a sustainable earth.
As the largest consumer and manufacturer of coffee, the U.S. represents the most fragmented dichotomy of sustainable solutions of all. As a coffee industry, we pull back the onion layer; see it’s rotten then try to glue it back in place.
I like the analogy that Susie Spindler, executive director of the developing Alliance For Coffee Excellence, uses. “How are you defining sustainable?” she asks. It’s like pulling back the layers of an onion; the more answers we find turns back another layer of questions. Spindler, who has worked with growing countries in creating the cup of excellence competition and auctions, has observed how sustainable definitions differ.
“What is sustainable and how do we know when it is or is not sustainable,” Spindler responds to my globally posed, broad question that includes sustainable programs for U.S. farmers as well as coffee farmers. “Sustainable for whom,” she continues. “There are always winners and losers,” she says, as I pose the question of U.S. farmers who are competing now with new, imported products from other countries. I’ve just read a front page article in the Asheville Citizen about a Hendersonville apple grower who, losing revenue to imports from China, has added an educational, interactive venue open to the public in an effort to stay in business.
“Apples may be sustainable for the Chinese farmer at very low prices. Issues are so complex, they go to the very heart of international and national politics,” she said. “They are so many variables. For example, coffee prices have as much to do with the U.S. import/export policy as they do with anything else. It is a cash crop that the U.S. supports the exportation of because our farmers do not grow coffee. If we don’t like coffee prices, should we support coffee farmers switching to crops for export that end up competing with our farms? Nothing is ever as simple as partnership programs or fair trade labels. Whether its apples or sustainable issues, we concur that the core must be much deeper than we thought.”
So why is the world turning to the U.S. to solve this problem? Don’t we have enough starving, poor people of our own? If the buck stops in the U.S., it starts there too. The recent efforts by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), National Coffee Association (NCA) and other industry experts in their speeches to Congress about the state of the coffee industry need to be repeated over and over until they are heard and adopted by the industry. We also need to renew our membership in the International Coffee Organization (ICO). How can the U.S. influence the survival of the coffee industry if its not a leading member of the most influential coffee organization in the world?
The issues must be resolved as a global community. It’s about cultures, politics, environment and world economics. As Garold LaRue, general manager, Partners Coffee, a private label roaster in Atlanta, succinctly sums up the global sustainability issue, “It’s about supply and demand.” Seems simple, but LaRue, a strong proponent of living sustainably, realizes there are many complex steps in the process.
Solutions, long and short term, involve new business models, creative thinking and cooperation among organizations, corporations and countries. Essentially, it’s about not only the future of the coffee industry, but of our planet. There are too many government and non-government organizations working independently with their own agendas. Why can’t we lay all the programs on the table for the industry to see and ponder, then map out a plan and strategy together? Is this too idealistic? Altruistic? Maybe, but if we don’t know what we’re doing within the industry, we’ll just keep on talking just like we’ve done since the first Sustainable Coffee Congress, sponsored by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center was held in September, 1996.
Now what? Since the international coffee industry is aware of the issue, how can we embrace a global program together? I don’t begin to have the answers, but I do know we need a global plan of action. I would like to suggest this plan be formed on the following hypothesis: that the NCA, the SCAA and the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE) serve as the umbrella by which this plan be formed and implemented.
Although we have established an awareness of the issue, established committees, created positive programs with partnerships, brought in government, non-government and charitable organizations to fund projects and provide programs that are benefiting the growing and consuming countries, developed programs that directly benefit the families of farmers and workers, the results indicate a positive stirring, but only a beginning.
So, why then, should U.S. government and non-government organizations, corporations and roasters be establishing partnerships with coffee growing countries in an effort to sustain farmers so they can continue to grow coffee? What about the U.S, or European farmer? What is the message we’re giving consumers? That we’re creating programs for coffee farmers, but not adequately addressing our own needs?
As an industry, we sometimes charge full speed ahead, but restricted by our blinders.
Having posed this question to a number of industry leaders, I believe that the more we delve into the sustainable issue; the more questions and issues pop up. As Susie Spindler, notes, once again using the onion analogy, the issue is like peeling back layers of the onion. And, in so doing, find the core is much deeper than we thought.
One of the big arguments in the industry is over Brazil’s increased coffee production, including the emergence of better quality arabicas. The Florida Citrus Industry has thrown around the same argument for years, yet the state sold Brazil the technology for making concentrates. Today, both countries compete for quality and price. What about the politics? Orange juice from Brazil may have as much to do with a multinational company supporting the campaign of a politician who gives out favored trading status to a foreign industry as it is efficiency in farming, or it may be that Brazilian farmers are just that good and shareholders of the orange juice companies like bigger bottom line profits. Maybe if we don’t take cheap apples, China won’t import electronics or wheat. As Spindler sums our query, the conversation now requires more research. “I just know that when I go looking for answers, I get more questions,” she said.
Conversations with industry leaders become more complex as answers to sustainable issues differ from country to country. From Mexico, Alejandro Garcia-Palacios, whose family has been operating La Fortuna coffee farm in Chiapas for several generations, agrees with Spindler in that people have different ideas concepts or definitions regarding sustainable issues. Garcia-Palacios, who was one of the first pioneers of farming organic coffee, then discontinued the program after losing money said, “If the global view of sustainable coffee is to imply that growers need to have a minimum guaranteed survival price, that’s one thing. However, what about other certifications? The organic philosophers have promoted organic certifications on coffee farms in developing countries. Once the farmer has complied with the requirements the supposed beneficial price does not even come close to our definition of sustainability. Otherwise, why are the organic farms having quality problems as well as insufficiency of income?” said Garcia-Palacios.
Addressing sustainable issue in a much broader perspective, Garcia-Palacios, who has frequented world conferences sponsored by the ICO and other global entities, has observed that the U.S. sometimes speaks out of both sides of its mouth.
As a result of these observations, Garcia-Palacios said, “Regarding the U.S. supporting various programs in coffee growing countries, I think perhaps that issue may have triggered the U.S congress approving a massive Farm Bill breaking international agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol. The U.S. has signed commitments to lower subsidies to their farmers on a developed country level, and has backed away from them. Another important topic regards migration. When coffee or any other growing regions deteriorate, people not having sufficient income and having to feed their families, what process continues after that? The U.S. and other members of the G-7, were precise the promoters of globalization. Why? In the relentless quest of the U.S. to sell their products on foreign markets, the U.S. insisted on eliminating tariffs of importing countries. Now that those countries have taken markets, which were mainly U.S. owned, e.g., corn exports into China, now are shared with southern America exports.”