The perfect cup of coffee
Many of us find it difficult to contemplate functioning without our morning coffee. Let’s face it, caffeine stimulates the brain and provides the energy boost we need. Depending on circumstances and routine, that first cup is probably followed by several others, distributed strategically throughout the day. In Continental Europe, freshly brewed coffee has been iconically popular since the beginning of the twentieth century. Try to imagine Paris without its coffee. It’s almost unthinkable!
Shortly after the Second World War, the art of coffee making declined in many countries beyond the immediate influence of Continental Europe. This was primarily associated with the advent of instant blends which were economical and convenient.
In a return to tradition, dedicated coffee drinkers have largely discarded freeze-dried and instant blends, and once again demonstrate a significant preference for freshly brewed and carefully selected beans. Commencing with the distribution of new varieties in the late eighties, brewed coffee experienced a prolonged wave of consumer popularity which strengthened during the nineties, and continues to this day. Part of the trend is attributed to the arrival of coffee house chains which rely on clever marketing and brand promotion. Beneath the facade of sophisticated imagery there are some fundamental issues which should be relevant to ethical and health conscious consumers.
Coffee is indigenous to the mountainous regions of Central Africa where it grows interspersed among a variety of other plant species beneath the rainforest canopy. Today coffee is commercially grown in the plantations of Africa, Indonesia, Vietnam, South and Central America. Influenced by the economic and social conditions of each region, coffee plantations operate according to either the traditional and sustainable approach or an intensive agricultural model which aims for a higher output with less sustainability.
Within the traditional and sustainable approach, there is an option for some producers to grow their beans organically, under certification. Like other examples of organic farming, this involves a code of practices designed to eliminate harmful chemicals, the inefficient use of resources, and environmental degradation. In some cases there are additional conditions which aim to protect growers and their families from exploitation. To qualify as a certified organic product, the raw beans must be extracted, processed, and roasted without chemical additives.
Intensive coffee production
The intensive model of production frequently depends on clearing natural forests to establish a uniform monoculture of coffee trees. With no canopy or competing species, trees mature early and can be tightly packed in orderly rows. The soil is treated with herbicide to destroy weeds, synthetic fertiliser to accelerate growth, and other chemicals to deter insect pests and prevent disease. Conventionally grown coffee is a highly toxic crop, with subsistence farmers frequently forced to employ outdated agricultural chemicals, banned elsewhere for safety reasons. In the past, unscrupulous importers have tried to excuse this with suggestions that pesticide residue is removed once the beans are roasted. Even if this were true, issues of toxicity must be considered in broader terms than their effects upon the consumer. Many of these practices have irreversible impacts on natural rainforest ecosystems.
Clear felling of rainforest for plantation removes soil nutrients and biodiversity. Because tropical environments encourage rapid recycling of soil nutrients, a high percentage of agricultural chemicals will always be stored within the plants and animals of the forest. Beneath surface layers of humus, many tropical soils are relatively deficient in their nutrient profile. Once the forest is cleared, the stored soil nutrients disappear, and longer-term problems like soil erosion, and groundwater evaporation are initiated. The combination of nutrient poor soils and the unnatural growth of single species in concentrated areas inevitably results in a dependent cycle of agricultural chemical use.
In the short term, this intensive model produces higher yields which usually guarantee cheap and abundant supplies for coffee drinkers in affluent countries.
Sustainable coffee production
Traditional methods for growing coffee involve interplanting among a range of species which preserve some of the natural characteristics of the original rainforest habitat. A desire to preserve and maintain rainforest habitats underlies eco-labelling strategies which attempt to identify and popularise coffee grown in a sustainable manner.
The widespread acceptance of the Shade Grown label was initially encouraged by well-publicised surveys reporting decreases in migratory bird populations. Critics of eco-labelling question the intrinsic value of focusing on singular habitat issues without fully addressing the underlying social and economic factors which determine the nature of coffee production.
Organic methods of coffee production are labour intensive and cannot always provide impoverished farmers with adequate income to survive. The outcomes for organic farming usually depend on the stability of local economies and factors relating to social cohesion. Mexico is one of the world’s largest exporters of organically certified coffee. In their recent study, Bray, Sanchez, and Murphy (2001), evaluated the importance of strong social networks which enabled peasant farmers of La Selva to develop co-operatives which were effective in developing the infrastructure required to enter the competitive commercial market for organic produce. Their self organisation resulted in better prices for their coffee, improved access to training, and additional resources like health programs established within the communities. These benefits are often reported for coffee growers protected under the Fair Trade cooperative.
Addressing long-term inequality
As an internationally recognised non profit organisation, Fair Trade provides support to more than half a million coffee growers by attempting to establish transparent procedures in commodity pricing. Under the Fair Trade umbrella organic growers receive a premium for their produce, and in some locations growers receive assistance with environmental, community, and farm management problems.
Those initiatives seeking to promote ecological sustainability and improved conditions for coffee growers are attempting to correct long-term inequities in international trade. In terms of the total volume of coffee produced each year, Fair Trade accounts for a tiny percentage, as does Shade Grown, and Organically Certified. One of the truths which cannot be avoided is that wholesale prices for coffee are set too low. This is largely due to intensive production techniques which inevitably flood international markets with vast quantities of poor quality coffee. Bearing this in mind, reasonable and fair-minded consumers should not resent paying a few dollars extra for higher quality coffee meeting the criteria established for Organic Certification, Fair Trade, and Shade Grown initiatives.