Wake Up and Smell the Coffee!

May 26, 1999

SOMETIMES IT SEEMS LIKE just about everything we eat, drink, or do is bad. Bad for the earth, for your health, for workers, for your karma. Those stylin’ sneakers? Cranked out by children in a sweatshop. Your shiny SUV? Choking the planet with greenhouse gases. Those succulent strawberries? Doused with chemicals. Cigarettes? Forget it.

What’s a consumer to do? Well, we can’t help you with the SUV, but here’s a place everyone can start: coffee. It’s so compelling and delicious it’s got to be bad, right? Well, not necessarily. In fact, depending on the kind of coffee you choose, you can actually be promoting an alternative, earth- and people-friendly society just by relaxing with a steaming mug of joe.

"Conscious" coffees — coffees grown and traded in a manner that attempts to minimize the environmental and social impacts of their conventionally grown counterparts — have found an increasingly ready audience throughout the United States, but particularly here in the Bay Area, where conscientious consumers are passionate about such issues and are willing to vote with their wallets.

"The Bay Area," confirms Adam Teitelbaum, of S.F.-based Adam’s Organic Coffees and cofounder of the Organic Coffee Association, "is the nation’s epicenter for socially responsible consumers." Indeed, the growth of conscious coffees is serving as a model for a new way of interacting with the people and ecosystems that produce some of the finest things in life.

Coffee is grown in more than eighty different countries, in tropical and subtropical regions. More than 26 million acres — an area bigger than Portugal — is used worldwide for coffee cultivation. The United States is the largest coffee-consuming nation on the planet, drinking roughly one-fifth of the 13.6 billion pounds of coffee grown worldwide. Coffee, in fact, is the second most valuable item of international trade, after petroleum, and is our most valuable food import.

Life on a coffee farm varies widely within and between countries. Coffee farms can range from small, traditional holdings of fewer than five acres to expansive, fully mechanized farms covering many thousands of acres. But there are some constants that most of the world’s coffee farmers share: The days are hot and long, the sacks of coffee "cherries" are heavy, and the pay is usually astoundingly low — in some countries, such as Guatemala, just a dollar or two per full day. There’s also the lack of health care, educational opportunities, and labor regulations to deal with. Farmworkers on larger estates must undertake regular applications of fertilizers and pesticides, sometimes with known carcinogenic chemicals.

Fortunately for drinkers, roasted coffee remains generally free of synthetic chemicals because the beans are protected inside the cherries and any residue is burned off in roasting. Nevertheless, coffee workers and the ecosystem at large are routinely exposed to chemical hazards. Thousands of agrochemical poisonings are documented every year, and thousands more go unreported.

Ecological disaster

If the human costs of coffee cultivation give your brew a bad aftertaste, adding the litany of associated environmental impacts may impart a downright bitter flavor — particularly if the coffee came from large, modernized estates. Native to Ethiopia, coffee grows best on tropical mountainsides that receive plenty of rainfall — in other words, where lush, gorgeous, and threatened tropical forests are found. Deforestation to make room for coffee is directly responsible for massive habitat destruction, loss of biological diversity, erosion, and water pollution, among other disasters.

With more than $5 billion of roasted coffee sold nationally last year, the bean is big business. Most of the coffee grown worldwide is used in the products of a few giant multinational corporations. In the United States, Folgers (owned by Procter and Gamble) and its nearest competitor, Maxwell House (Philip Morris), account for nearly half of the roast coffee sold. These coffees are blended to return the greatest possible profit to their producers, and of course we all know what this does to the flavor of the product.

But luckily for us coffee heads, there are solutions to the coffee conundrum — solutions that make sense both for politics and for the palate. The only growing segment of the coffee industry is the stuff that tastes good — specialty coffee. Specialty coffee is the new kid on the block that, in the last couple of decades, has been redefining and reinvigorating our coffee experience with better beans and darker roasts. Last year it accounted for about a fifth of the roasted coffee sold in the United States, and it’s gaining market share all the time, turning lattes and espressos into everyday necessities.

And within the specialty coffee trend a new wave of coffees is emerging that cater to our cravings for justice just as much as they do our cravings for caffeine. Certification marks have arisen to assure consumers of their brew’s pedigree. Along with the familiar certified organic label, a new label — certified fair trade — is about to hit the shelves. Although the organic and fair trade labels each have a different focus, both seek to distribute the wealth between producers and consumers more equitably while minimizing environmental degradation.

Organic-coffee companies focus on ecological sustainability and worker health in coffee cultivation. They will only buy and sell coffee grown without synthetic agrochemicals. Instead, organic farmers focus on maintaining good soil quality and plant health as the most effective means to boost crop productivity and immunity against disease. Growers and roasters that have been certified by a third party earn the right to call their product "certified organic coffee."

About half of the coffee grown in the world is still produced on small traditional farms, and a vast majority of them use minimal pesticides (by virtue of the farmers’ poverty). Many are already certified organic. Traditional farms that are not certified are often referred to as "passive organic." You’ve probably already had organic coffee — maybe without even knowing it.

Although some critics of certified coffees claim that the certification costs are too high for poor farmers, Paul Rice, who worked with organic farming cooperatives for 16 years before joining Oakland-based TransFair USA (www.transfairusa.org), insists certification always proves to be a good investment. In a Nicaraguan cooperative he worked with several years ago, "certification costs amounted to about three cents per pound — which is a great investment because they can then receive the fifteen-cent premium above the normal market price for their coffee."

According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, certified organic coffee is currently the fastest growing sector of the specialty coffee industry and is expected to comprise 5 percent of specialty coffee sold in the United States this year.

Fair is fair

Fair trade has a slightly different — but complementary — focus. Fair trade coffee importers bypass exploitative wholesalers by buying directly from producer cooperatives. Fair trade organizations work with farmer cooperatives, ensure workers are paid a living wage (among other strategies, they adhere to a fixed floor price for fair trade coffee — even if the world market price drops far below it), educate consumers about the coffee’s country of origin, and, critically, provide much needed credit to farmers who traditionally cannot receive credit from local banks.

The fair trade movement is international in scope, and coffee is one of its central products. Established in Europe in the 1970s, fair trade has grown steadily, and today, according to the fair trade coffee company Equal Exchange, more than 500,000 farmers around the world produce and sell more than 32 million pounds of coffee each year through the fair trade network. Boston-based Equal Exchange is the country’s largest and oldest (since 1986) fair trade coffee company. Last year the company imported 1.6 million pounds of green coffee into the United States from cooperatives in Latin America, Africa, Oceania, and Asia.

Here in the Bay Area, TransFair USA is launching an initiative this summer that will make the United States the 17th country to have a fair trade certification mark on its store shelves. The group is pushing to make the fair trade certification mark as well-known and in demand as the "certified organic" label. "We’re starting here," executive director Paul Rice says, "because the Bay Area is very passionate about coffee already, plus it’s politically progressive and environmentally aware, so the concepts are not new to people here."

In a fluid commodity market, this kind of approach is novel and challenging. To make the label meaningful, Rice says, "TransFair monitors the whole value chain from the tree to the cup. International inspectors monitor the farms, and national offices like ours monitor the paper trail from importers to roasters to retailers."

TransFair USA hopes to create an alternative to business as usual: a label that allows consumers to know that their coffee budget is actually helping poor rural farmers to earn a dignified livelihood, rather than helping vast multinationals to post yet more profits. "At a time when sales and profits are literally booming in this segment of the market," Rice told us, "there is an untold story that no one hears in this country: hundreds of thousands of growers and their families are being left behind and are still making twenty, thirty, or forty cents per pound for their product. And that just isn’t enough to ensure a decent livable wage…. Fair trade companies are addressing that directly by helping farmers get organized, helping farmers plug into markets in more effective ways, and helping them to get a decent price for their product."

A combination of smart marketing and grassroots mobilization, TransFair USA is "in the process of building alliances with grassroots groups, community groups, nonprofit organizations, churches, and student organizations," Rice says. "They are going to help by lending the staff and by helping to educate and mobilize their constituencies to help us get fair trade on the shelves." Rice hopes to have fair trade coffee available in more than 50 outlets throughout the Bay Area, including mainstream supermarkets, by the end of the summer.

The message behind fair trade has been growing steadily in consumer consciousness. Video images of Indonesian workers toiling for pennies to produce expensive sneakers or Honduran sweatshops cranking out brand-name clothing provides evidence people seem to need to realize the reality of much of global trade today. This month the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution to support the principles of fair trade, corporate accountability, and socially responsible investment. The first of its kind in this country, the resolution declares "San Francisco’s opposition to unregulated economic globalization in its current state and support for fair trade." As a key coordinator of this resolution, the human rights organization Global Exchange (whose fair trade stores in Noe Valley and Berkeley already carry coffee) is lobbying the city to begin its commitment by using fair trade coffee in its offices.

Shade is good

This kind of action has already begun to make a difference down on the farm. Perhaps you’re kicking back in a café or at home with a cup of java, marveling at how much your life has been changed by the triumph of the dark roast. Although the coffee landscape here has changed drastically in the last decade, life has remained fairly consistent on small coffee farms. Cultivated in some of the poorest parts of the tropics — Java itself, for example — coffee is traditionally grown in a system of agriculture known as agroforestry — a farming technique in which different kinds of plants are grown together like plants in a forest. Coffee is an understory shrub — a crop that thrives in the shade of larger trees. Because the tree crops are maintained over the coffee, traditional shaded coffee farms still attract wildlife and are biodiversity havens when compared with farms that concentrate on any of a long list of other crops, such as cocoa, sugar, and cotton.

In spite of the lush beauty and habitat importance of their farms, many farmers are forced by economic conditions to undertake "technification." Technified coffee is the kind primarily found on the larger estates — high-yielding coffee varieties that grow best in partial or full sun. Conversion from traditional to "sun coffee" entails cutting down or thinning the valuable shade trees — destroying the wildlife-habitat benefits they provide. Most technified coffee also demands more agrochemicals — pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers. And all of the effects associated with technification are growing in magnitude as an increasing proportion of the world’s coffee is grown under this kind of scheme.

Researchers at the D.C.-based Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center are studying the effects of different coffee cultivation systems on migratory songbirds that summer in the United States and migrate to different regions of Latin America during the winter. "Shade coffee can act as a refuge for biodiversity, " Robert A. Rice, a geographer at the Center, says. "Coffee grown with a diverse and tall shade above it attracts as many species of birds as natural forests in the same region. The bottom line is that … shade coffee can play an important role in conservation."

According to TransFair USA’s Paul Rice, the industrial coffee establishment is really the driving force behind the transition to chemical-intensive coffee. "In country after country after country — even the countries that are big in organics like Mexico and Nicaragua — you can’t find a bank that will give you a loan to renovate using organic agricultural techniques. They say you have to use chemicals."

Co-op coffee

But where it is taking root, the fair trade movement has made a tremendous difference to a growing number of coffee farmers. Santiago Rivera, who visited a major coffee industry convention in Philadelphia earlier this month as part of TransFair’s launch, has worked on coffee farms for close to 35 years. A native of northern Nicaragua, he is a member of an organic cooperative composed of 15 families — each with farms about four acres in size.

About three years ago the cooperative joined the fair trade movement and organized with 50 other cooperatives to create an exporting company representing about 3,000 farmers. "Before I joined the fair trade movement, I had to sell [my coffee] to the ‘coyotes,’ " Rivera says. (The "coyotes" are predatory coffee traders who are often the only source of credit available.) "We didn’t have any extra money to invest in the farm — and we never had money to spend on pack animals, so I had to haul the [150-pound] coffee sacks on my back all the way down the hills. Since our cooperative joined [the fair trade movement], our income has doubled and our efficiency has really gone up. We now use mules to haul the coffee down, and we have a more modern pulper that allows us to process [de-pulp] one hundred sacks of coffee cherries in two hours. With our old, outdated machine it would have taken us three days to do that!"

Being able to cut out the coyote by forming their own exporting company has meant farmers like Rivera can deal directly with foreign buyers and negotiate for the best possible price. By organizing, they are able to assume far more control over their own lives — a profound, empowering difference in the lives of farmers and their families.

While this kind of trading strikes at the heart of both the social and the ecological issues relating to coffee production, it challenges deeply rooted vested interests in many countries. "Whenever people who have historically been marginalized and exploited try to organize to obtain a more fair portion of revenue, more of the value that they have created, the vested interests resist." Rodney North, information coordinator at Equal Exchange, says

"Cooperatives have consistently been under threat in many countries. In ’94 in Chiapas the leader of a small co-op was assassinated on his doorstep when he succeeded in raising the prices paid to local farmers. When I returned to Chiapas in ’97 to visit one of the largest organic coffee producers in the world and one of the largest indigenous co-ops in Mexico, one of their leaders was assassinated. This is an ongoing problem in other countries as well, and it’s one of the things that coffee companies can address by speaking out on behalf of these people who are supplying their coffee as well as ours," North says.

Label confusion

But do all these different labels confuse coffee drinkers? Besides organic and fair trade coffees, some stores sell "shade" or "bird-friendly" coffee, a third variant. Grown in traditional shade-cultivation systems, this coffee is marketed to people concerned mostly about bird issues, such as the birders who have been guzzling "songbird friendly" coffee from the Thanksgiving Coffee Company in Fort Bragg. Many farms producing this coffee are also certified or passive organic, and may even be involved in fair trade relationships.

If your head is buzzing with coffee’s issues, you’re not alone. Alejandro Robles, the coffee buyer at Rainbow Grocery, which has some of the most eco-politically aware customers in the world, says, "Customers do get confused. Those kind of things need to be better explained, especially because we are getting more and more different kinds of coffee in our store every day."

In response, the specialty coffee industry has tried to find common ground for labeling conscious coffees. Finding a suitable term that encompasses all three conscious coffees (perhaps a superseal that generically calls all of them "sustainable coffee") would reduce consumer confusion over the three issues; consumers would not have to struggle over what to support — organic coffee cooperatives, songbird habitat, or fair pay to coffee growers.

But most of the voices behind conscious coffees refuse to lump their focus together with the others. "If it’s not organic, it’s not sustainable. Period." says Adam Teitelbaum of Adam’s Organic Coffees. "We don’t want to muddy our message by combining it with, say, the ‘bird-friendly’ shade-coffee companies, because some of those companies actually do use coffee that gets sprayed with agrochemicals — and the consumer can be deceived by slick green-washing." Bearing the slogan "all of the flavors, none of the petrochemicals," ORCA aims to educate consumers about issues surrounding certified organic coffees.

Although many conscious coffee companies feel the same way about blurring their focus, Paul Rice of TransFair USA suggests that, in fact, the three are largely compatible. He found that "up to 85 percent of the farms on our fair trade register are also either shade or organic (certified or passive). So what we’re seeing is a tremendous overlap of the three main alternatives." This helps explain why TransFair USA has entered into negotiations with both Adam’s and Thanksgiving to allow them to use the fair trade mark on some of their coffees.

Going mainstream?

Indeed, in just the past year, several major coffee roasters have rolled out their own organic coffees. Millstone coffee, a whole-bean brand marketed in supermarkets by Procter and Gamble, has also been selling organic beans. Here in the Bay Area, Peet’s Coffee launched its Gaia blend of organic coffee last year in response to years of customer requests. In both cases, sales have exceeded expectations, indicating that the demand exists. And most recently, on Earth Day last month, Starbucks came out with its Costa Rican Organic coffee, following a year of buzz and rumor. It’s too early to tell how sales will be, but there’s every reason to believe it’ll be unstoppable.

This is a major change for Starbucks, a company that owns a fifth of all cafés nationwide. Until this year, the company insisted that the quality of organic coffees is inferior — a claim mocked by many roasters and coffee lovers, who say just the opposite: because of the unparalleled soil health on organic farms, the trees produce richer, more complex coffees. Jim Reynolds, coffee buyer and general manager at Peet’s Coffee, believes that the reluctance of large companies to get involved stems from the fact that organic coffee is relatively new to the scene. "After tasting hundreds of certified organic coffees, we found some that were really quite good and we were pleased with them, but they are still developing," Reynolds says.

Either way, "any notions that organics were a niche product have been exploded," Rice says, "because by definition it’s mainstream by virtue of who’s playing it now. And everyone is going to follow the leader."

Today and every day an average of 450 million cups of coffee will be swilled in America. That’s a powerful economic engine — one that assures us a steady supply of java, sure, but also one that conscious coffee companies hope we can harness for social change.

But in the end, it’s all up to you. All of these different labels are based on the premise that people in consuming nations care where their products come from. Reynolds told us how it worked for Peet’s: "Because we’re based in Berkeley, there’s a lot of demand for organically grown coffee among our customers. We felt that some customers were probably buying their coffee elsewhere, so we decided to search the ends of the earth for the best certified organically grown coffee we could find." And fair trade coffee could be next on the agenda — after we spoke to him, Reynolds checked and found out that Peet’s already includes coffee from a Nicaraguan member of the fair trade network in one of its blends.

So the choice is ours to make. Conscious coffee is available, here in the Bay Area perhaps more than anywhere else. Imagine that — the basis for a new way of engaging our planet’s social and ecological resources — with coffee leading the way.

Read it on the SFBG site.

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