(MintPress)– Drinking coffee may have a benefit, besides the usual “pick me up” that many rely on to get their day started. But many who partake in the beverage have no idea of the impact that their caffeine habit has on coffee farmers across the globe. A new study published this week in the the […]
(MintPress)– Drinking coffee may have a benefit, besides the usual “pick me up” that many rely on to get their day started. But many who partake in the beverage have no idea of the impact that their caffeine habit has on coffee farmers across the globe.
A new study published this week in the the New England Journal of Medicine has found that drinking coffee may lead to a longer life. But for those who grow coffee in countries across Latin America and Africa, poverty, human rights abuses and low life expectancy rates are commonplace.
To combat this situation, the fair trade coffee campaign has been gaining traction with consumers across the globe hoping to ameliorate the living conditions of some of the world’s most impoverished people through their own choices about consumption.
Consumption and production
In America, 64 percent of adults drink coffee on a daily basis, according to The National Coffee Association (NCA), and the average drinker consumes 3.2 cups each day. The International Coffee Organization reports that 1.4 billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide each day – and more than 400 million in the U.S., however that makes Americans number 22 on the world list in per capita coffee consumption.
While many Americans and others in industrialized countries across the globe are willing to shell out several dollars a day for a cup of joe, the price paid to many coffee farmers is so meager that many are living in poverty. “As westerners revel in those designer lattes, impoverished Ethiopian coffee growers suffer the bitter taste of injustice,” says the introduction to the film Black Gold.
The 2006 Nick and Marc Francis film explores the international coffee trade and its ramifications for coffee farmers.
For a $3 cup of coffee, a farmer earns just three cents, the film begins. Its opening scenes juxtapose city-dwellers sipping Starbucks, paroozing daily papers and munching pastries against images of farm workers in Ethiopia, picking beans and wielding antiquated harvesting tools in the hot sun, slinging back-breakingly big sacks of coffee beans over their shoulders.
Workers in the industry earn wages of less than one dollar per per day, and there are an estimated 75 million people worldwide who earn a living in the industry. “Process sorters, all women, spend eight hours per day removing inferior coffee beans. In 2006 they earned less than 50 cents per day. For these workers and their families, sufficient food, shoes, clean water, and school for their children would be considered luxuries,” writes Ted Ketchum, editor of GreenMoney Journal.
“The coffee industry as a whole is overwhelmingly dominated by large, multinational companies which supply cheap, generic products in supermarkets. Specialty coffee roasters make up an incredibly small percentage of the industry and are intimately involved in the entire coffee cycle — from farming, to processing and roasting, “ writes Jeremy Hulsdunk on a blog for the 5 Senses wholesale coffee company, a fair trade business.
And Ketchum says most profits for coffee beans grown in Ethiopia, for example, go to the four multinationals who control the markets: Kraft, Nestle, Proctor & Gamble and Sara Lee.
According to the World Bank, the average life expectancy in Ethiopia, where coffee accounts for 65 percent of the country’s export earnings, is 43 years.
Inside the industry
Farming coffee is extremely labor intensive, and industry insiders say that the conditions that many farmers work under in places like Africa and Latin America are devoid of safety codes.
Coffee plants grow best where there is plenty of rainfall at certain times of the year and thrive in a well-drained, rich, volcanic soil, according to the NCA, which makes countries like Brazil and Columbia the leading coffee producing countries of the world.
It takes three-to-four years for a coffee seed to grow into a tree that produces coffee beans. Coffee beans ready to be harvested, called cherries, are green in color, and have to be hand picked. It takes approximately 2,000 cherries—4,000 beans—to produce one pound of roasted coffee.
After the cherries are husked, sorted and bagged, they are shipped from the countries where they were grown to the countries where they will be manufactured, packaged and consumed. Manufacturing involves the roasting and grinding of the coffee beans, or the production of instant coffee.
But many farmers don’t earn a fair price for their labor and products. Typically, only 5-10 percent of the retail price of a pound of coffee goes to the farmer.
“The big multinational coffee companies perpetuate low coffee prices. Under the free market system, these four main buyers pit 25 million sellers against each other, creating a race to the bottom. They have funded and encouraged the expansion of the low-cost, low quality robusta coffee, and have spent millions of dollars developing technologies to make this bitter variety palatable. They use increasing amounts of this coffee in grocery store blends, further fueling deforestation and dragging down prices,” says Julie Craves, a University of Michigan ecologist.
Craves says that there is an inescapable link between poverty and environmental degradation. “Making sure that coffee farmers receive a living wage is one way to help preserve habitat — both by encouraging sustainable coffee farming methods that produce the highest quality coffee, and by empowering farmers economically and reducing their need to exploit the environment for survival,” she writes.
“The low bean prices fueling corporate profits are causing entire rural communities to disappear and forcing desperate peasants into everything from crime and illicit crops to illegal migration,” Nestor Osorio, a Colombian who heads the International Coffee Organization in London, which represents producing nations told the Wall Street Journal.
How fair trade aims to help
A growing movement called fair trade has been dedicated to making sure that producers in developing countries are paid a fair price for the goods they produce.
Fair trade is a strategy for poverty alleviation and sustainable development, aiming to create opportunities for producers disadvantaged or marginalized by the traditional economic models
“International action to help small coffee farmers raise their standards of living is critical as it can assist developing countries escape from the poverty trap and contribute to the overall alleviation of world poverty,” writes Karla Utting-Chamorro in an article published in Development in Practice, a publication produced by Oxfam.
Traders seeking to be certified as fair trade must pay producers a price which covers the cost of sustainable production and provides a living wage.
The fair trade coffee movement has set price floor of $1.26 per pound of coffee produced, no matter how low the market prices may fall, and must keep the price at least ten cents higher than the general market price
Through contracts made with buyers, low interest credits and the $1.26 price floor, coffee growers are able to receive real, stable wages and a better standard of living.
The debate over fair trade
Princeton University philosopher and environmentalist Dr. Peter Singer explains, “Small farmers, for their part, are required to be organized in cooperatives or other groups that allow democratic participation. Plantations and factories can use the Fairtrade label if they pay their workers decent wages, comply with health, safety, and environmental standards, allow unions or other forms of workers’ associations, provide good housing if workers are not living at home, and do not use child labor or forced labor.”
Although fair trade coffee costs more than conventional beans for consumers, certification eliminates the “middle man” which helps to ensure that more profit goes into farmer’s pockets.
Rates from Fair Trade organizations also help to fund the communities or cooperatives of the growers. Advocates point out that funding for local infrastructures in coffee communities and cooperatives where fair trade programs are in place often mean those communities can have better schools, health facilities, stores and the like.
However, critics of the fair trade movement have raised questions about the merits of fair trade. For example Anne Tallontire, an expert in systems of fair trade and a senior lecturer of ‘Business, Environment & Corporate Responsibility’ at Leeds University in the UK has argued,“Dependency and the extent to which fair trade may subsidize otherwise inefficient or sub-standard producers have been raised as potential short-comings of fair trade in relations to other approaches to enabling small producers to enter export markets,” but fair trade proponents are quick to point out that the movement towards ethical consumption is gaining traction worldwide.
As Singer points out, “there are advantages to Fairtrade. The growers know that they have to provide a product that consumers like, both for its taste and for the way it is grown. If their product sells well, they can take pride in having produced something that is sought after around the world. From the growers’ perspective, receiving a premium by selling a Fairtrade product is preferable to receiving a charitable handout that they would get whether they worked or not and regardless of the quality of what they produce. Paying more for a Fairtrade label is no more “anti-market” than paying more for a Gucci label, and it reflects better ethical priorities. Fairtrade is not a government subsidy. Its success depends on market demand, not political lobbying. Fortunately, in Europe, that market demand is growing rapidly. One hopes that it will soon reach similar levels throughout the developed world, and wherever people can make choices about their discretionary spending.”