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Coffee and Sustainability

August 5, 2010

People are fond of saying, “let’s get together and talk politics over coffee.” In some circles they say, “let’s talk about the politics of coffee.”

During the mid-90’s, there was a campaign targeting Folgers coffee because of its support for the Salvadoran military dictatorship. Some of us were involved in that campaign locally. I remember the president of a local peace organization saying at the time, “all boycotts are off in the face of addiction.”

Coffee drinkers have felt better about their addiction in recent years with the rise of Fair Trade Coffee, coffee which is purchased through a cooperative system where workers are treated with dignity and receive a fair wage.

There are numerous places that one can buy Fair Trade Coffee in Grand Rapids, both freshly brewed and by the pound. However, there is now another business approach to coffee, one that was featured in a recent MiBiz publication focusing on what the business journal called “foodpreneurs.”

This effort is called the Direct Trade Coffee Club and it has several new business partners in Grand Rapids, specifically the MadCap Coffee Company. The MiBiz article featured MadCap Coffee and spoke with the owners and one of the employees.

One of the owners (Chad Morton) says that he travels to Central America regularly to meet with farmers and to “advise them on how to make their crops better.” He also says that this is a justice issue “when you see a 10-year old kid in flip flops carrying 10-pound bags of coffee up a hill an adult can barely walk up.” Morton also says that the goal of the company is to educate coffee drinkers in Grand Rapids and to promote sustainability.

In one sense it is encouraging to see people think about how their consumer habits impact people around the world, but lets be clear about the fact that this is a business whose goal is to expand. A spokesperson for the Direct Trade Coffee Club admits as much at the very end of the MiBiz article by saying they are looking to other products like chocolate to market locally.

The idea of expansion or growth is fundamental within a capitalist model, whether you make bombs or sell coffee. If this is the case, where does one draw the line on how many bombs or how much coffee is enough?

People in countries throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia have been suffering because of the massive consumption of coffee from the rich nations of the world. The US consumes more coffee than anyone other nation in the world, a reality, which has dictated massive levels of coffee production in poor countries.

We all like to think that people in those countries grow coffee because that is what they want to do, when in fact coffee production has historically been determined by the demand in countries like the US. Coffee companies, wanting access to cheap land and cheap labor have often collaborated with brutal dictatorships to insure hefty profits (see Coffee and Power, Paige).

When the Fair Trade Coffee effort came on the scene it was motivated by a desire to not continue the unjust working conditions that coffee workers were subjected to. This is a natural reaction by people who are opposed to human suffering. However, part of the problem with this thinking is that it does not question the very nature of coffee growing and coffee consumption.

People in Latin America don’t grow coffee because this is a career choice for them, they grow it because they might be able to make a living within the current market system. Small farmers and small farm movements like Via Campesina would rather grow food for local consumption than luxury items like coffee, but are often unable because they can’t get a decent price for their food crops.

The reasons for not being able to make a living off of growing/selling food are historical and structural. Under a capitalist model one needs high volume in order to compete in the market, something that small farmers are never able to achieve. Add to this the fact that the US often dumps cheap food stables like wheat and corn into these countries through programs such as USAID and you have another reason why small farmers can’t compete. (For an excellent investigation of how USAID money is used see The Soft War: The Uses and Abuses of U.S. Economic Aid in Central America.)

Now along comes fair trade and direct trade efforts, which seek to go around these historical and structure factors, but these efforts do not address the more fundamental problems. For instance, lets say that all of the current land in the world that was used for growing coffee was all of a sudden transformed into fair trade or direct trade production. Would that alleviate the human and ecological damaged caused by the current forms of coffee production? There is no question that some of the suffering would be reduced, but is this really a solution to ecological and human rights around the world?

Coffee production still demands that is travels thousands of miles before it gets to consumers in the US, which necessitates massive levels of fossil fuel use. But the more important issue here again is growth. If coffee sellers in the US and other industrial countries want to expand their markets, it also means there will need to be an expansion of coffee production, which means more land is used to grow coffee. Considering that millions of people around the world have no access to land to grow food, does it seem like a sustainable notion to expand coffee markets?

And lets face it, those of us in the US who buy fair trade or direct trade coffee are usually in positions of privilege. Working class people and people who are struggling to get by are not likely to buy fair trade or direct trade coffee, simply because it is often twice as expensive as commercial brand name coffees.

If you are going to drink coffee it is certainly more humane to buy fair trade or direct trade, but if you are seriously wanting to look at what is means to be sustainable then we all need to continue to investigate these issues to see whether or not consuming luxury items can be label sustainable.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Kate Wheeler permalink
    August 5, 2010 11:38 pm

    Jeff, in your opinion what other products are essentially unsustainable in the same ways as coffee? Tea? Bananas? Tropical fruits? It’s my impression that eating locally means really focusing on what can be obtained locally…but then I wonder about the immediate negative fallout for countries that depend on employment in places like tea plantations or pineapple farms. How can that be avoided?

    I know this is a complicated issue, and I don’t intend to ask for a detailed answer from you, but just your general impression on where the lines could be drawn.

  2. Jeff Smith permalink*
    August 5, 2010 11:56 pm

    Kate, you are right, there is no easy solution and it isn’t just about what to buy and not to buy. We need to do things that change policy so that people who currently are forced to grow cash crops in a global market are able to determine their own futures. The Zapatistas are a good example as are the MST in Brazil of efforts to create more autonomy. If we can change government policy that doesn’t promote corporate free trade that can have a big impact on what happens abroad.

    We also need to eat more regionally, more seasonally and just embrace a slightly less diverse diet. Humans have done it for centuries, since global trade for the masses is a fairly recent phenomenon. However, in making this transition we need have better relations and more solidarity with people abroad who currently are hostages to the global economy.

  3. chad permalink
    August 6, 2010 12:59 am

    hey jeff,

    very well written article. thank you for thinking through the whole of coffee consumption and presenting it in a thought provoking way.

    as you must be aware, it is very difficult to direct attention to every philosophy (in brief articles) as to what organizations like The Direct Trade Coffee Club and Madcap Coffee are about, and as far as i know, you and i have never had a conversation, but id love to sit down someplace and chat…(over water of course!) if youd like to know more about coffee, Madcap or The Direct Trade Coffee Company. i think it could be enlightening to both of us!

    chad morton

    you can contact me directly via my email chadmorton4@gmail.com

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