Monday, November 14, 2005

coffee

Coffee, caffe, cafe, kaffee, koffie.

Now what about bourbon santos, San Marcos di Tarrazu, Yirgacheffe, Mandheling, or kopi luwak?

No matter how you say it, the brown bitter liquid is causing quite a stir. After oil, it is the second most widely traded (legal) food commodity in the world. And we're passionate about it. Most of us drink at least a cup a day and would agree that we pay far too much for it.

Let's use espresso to illustrate. A cup can run anywhere from $2-4, the Auckland University of Technology (who lists it as a living expense on their website) says about $3. We can use that for arguements sake. The average espresso uses between between 14 and 17 grams of coffee per cup, while others may barely use 10 grams. Averaging 15.5 grams, that puts the cafe price of coffee at $193 per kilo. Using under 10 grams, that skyrockets to over $300 per kilo. And what about the supermarket? Say $7 for a 200 or 250 gram brick? That's between $28 and $35 a kilo. A slightly better figure.

That covers the pocketbook, but do we know how much it really costs?

Regardless if you drink instant, or prefer the myriad of cafe choices, or you are a gastronome, swilling Guatemalan Huehuetenango or Kopi luwak (beans scavenged from Indonesian kitty poo, no, not kidding, and it sells for about 75USD per quarter pound), with the volume we are guzzling, we should want to know more. Where is it grown? Who grows it? How? There are many informative websites about coffee detailing these questions and the importance of purchasing coffee that is fairly traded (Fair Trade coffee), and farmed using ecologically sound and environmentally safe methods. I highly recommend www.tradeaid.org.nz where there is updated information on product availability and supplier participation. Do look them up, it is a relevant and necessary.

First, I'll assume that everyone knows that coffee comes from a plant grown on a farm. But is it common knowledge that coffee comes predominantly from farmers who live and work appalling conditions? They rarely have governing bodies and struggle under fragile and corrupt economic systems. Fair Trade and similar schemes are working with farmers so they can implement business and technological support from government, trade groups, and private organisations (such as MAF and HortResearch) as would a horticultural farm in New Zealand.

So what is Fair Trade? Fair Trade is a system that guarantees coffee farmers in the world's producing regions, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, a fair price for their harvests by implementing a set minimum price to offset the volatile world commodity market. If the world market price goes higher, the fair trade market pays higher prices. Ensuring this base minimum ($1.26 per pound), to the majority of the world's coffee farmers means a "decent" living wage. In addition, participating farmers are typically represented by buying cooperatives and the fair payments are invested in health care, education, environmental stewardship, and economic independence. This provides credit to farmers, community development, and the availability of technical assistance to adopt more sustainable methods of farming, organic and shade coffee.

Ok, so this seems decent. Though still probably not a fair price, if you consider the intensive labor (I've read figures of something like 400 man hours per 70kg bag of the green beans) required to produce coffee and the fact that producers alone have to bear the brunt of poor harvests. Still, the difference between 10 cents a pound and $1.26 is quite substantial. (What are the cafes charging again?) The formation of buying cooperatives support the fairer price structures, but more promising are the long term relationships and the social gains that stem from this system. Alternative political and market structures that are morally important will also promote longevity and stability of these communities.

Coffee certified as Fair Trade is independently monitored to ensure that this mornings macchiato was purchased under fair conditions. Monitored by who? Australia and New Zealand have the Fair Trade Association that uphold the criteria of "standards developed by the FLO Standards & Policy Committee, in which stakeholders from FLO’s member organisations, producer organisations, traders and external experts participate" (FLO website).

As with most of the world, the cafe culture has indeed invaded the Kiwi lifestyle. In Wellington, I am told there are more cafes per capita than Manhattan (or was it all of New York?) Either way, that's a lot of beans. And then there is the supermarket.

Wondering about a fair trade choice at the supermarket? Good luck. The main players aren't overly interested in providing a mainstream fair trade option. In mid 2004, Kraft "saw no demand" for this sector, Sara Lee had developed the 'Prebica' coffee line in response to the growing number of American university students demanding fair trade coffee in their campus cafeterias, P&G has a fraction of its business (Millstone label) that is fair trade and Nestle has only recently come up with an instant product certified Fair Trade to answer the growing trend in the UK. The Japanese owned company Robert Harris, who has nearly 50% of the supermarket ground coffee business, apparently aren't so interested either. (Although I've heard that there is supposed to be something Fair Trade in their pipeline for food service, I can't find it anywhere on their websites. I'll keep looking.)

Bottom line: Companies will source fair trade beans IF there's a demand. In Europe this demand is growing. Like the demand for good coffee, in Italy there is respect and value for the people that produce food. Giant Lavazza has developed a collaborative project called ¡Tierra! and likewise, illy is another strong proponent of coffee growers. German Tchibo has rececently got in on the action. All these companies work within their own initiative to improve the quality of coffee and they want to do so in a responsible corporate manner. Establishing social, ecological and economical standards for sustainable production, processing and trading of coffee, higher standards of living for farmers, as well as environmental protection are all included in the business practices of these companies.

Who knew? But maybe you are asking "What does this mean to me?". Well, if it is not enough to contribute your bit to fair and just dealings with the 20 odd million people who produce the coffee you buy, supporting the earning of a fair wage, ensuring good working conditions, minimizing the impact of coffee farming on our planet, how about showing the coffee farmer the money?

Simply put, what we pay for coffee is at an all time high, why not distribute some of that back to the farmer? Consumers should demand this of the large coffee corporations. Where there is a demand, large companies will provide. I believe that New Zealand consumers, in a country where nearly everyone is touched by agriculture in some way, if given an informed choice would support a movement that supports the plight of coffee farmers in crisis.

On another, more hedonistic, note, it also ensures that you don't get adulterated (read: inferior) coffee.

We all like 'good' coffee. With the glut of garbage on the market, I don't know if many of us would know it if we tasted it. Matter of fact, most cafes rely on that. Coffee quality is highly dependent on its origin, species and the way it is processed. There are many varieties but only three (some argue two) species are commercially traded on the world market: Coffea arabica, C. canephora (former name, C. robusta), and C. liberica. The arabicas are more prized than the others and demand higher prices. Processing using the wet (washed) method produces a "mild" coffee, the most expensive being Colombian milds (from Colombia, Tanzania and Kenya). Other "milds" come from Central America, Mexico, other Latin American countries, and some African nations. Robustas come principally from Asia and some African countries.

Some countries have more stringent harvesting and processing rules for coffee producers. Kenya, for example, prides itself for its reputation as East Africa's top quality coffee producer. They maintain this by inspecting and grading, assuring quality beans offered for export. The government controls the system and rewards growers for better beans resulting in consistent quality and continual improvements.

Fair Trade consults with the International Coffee Organisation (criteria for certification, remember?) that helps promote quality and sustainability of the market. So, if left unregulated, what you are drinking could be less than the quality stuff you think you are paying for. What is to prevent buyers from saving a little money by blending cheaper robusta with that Antigua you savour on the weekends? Without some intervention, who will stop the roasting houses from packaging substandard coffee and still demanding premium prices?

Have a favourite cafe that doesn't offer fair trade coffee and want to remain loyal? Ask for it. I have spoken to a few local roasters who have all said the same thing: they don't supply fair trade because there is no real demand for it. Show them that is not the case. If a cafe sells Fair Trade coffee, it will likely be well posted (and listed on www.tradeaid.org.nz). If not, ask your coffee retailer or roaster. And if they can't or won't tell you, there are lots of cafes in New Zealand to choose from who deal in Fair trade coffee and would be more than willing to provide information.

Can your cup of coffee make a difference to the 8 or so percent of the world's population in fragile or developing countries whose livelihood hinges on getting a fair price?

It can, and with responsible companies and Fair Trade, it does.

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