Evidently we can do something more than just embrace the early, chilly days of fall this October 1st. The International Coffee Organization invites us to revel in the joys of a warm brewed cup while acknowledging the hard work of coffee farmers and recognizing the journey coffee makes from seedling, to cherry, to wet mill, to drying, to bagging, to selling, to sorting, to weighing, to roasting, to selling again, to flying over the ocean, to selling again, to grinding, to brewing, to pouring, to drinking.
They call it a global community and ask us to celebrate "a journey of diversity, quality, and passion."
In Switzerland, you can celebrate International Coffee Day with UCC Coffee in Zollikofen. A presentation on coffee production in Honduras will be followed by tasting opportunities.
Coffee is delicious. For many of us, that first sip in the morning, before we're fully awake, when the day is still full of possibilities, is a rare constant. But to call what happens from farm to cup along the coffee supply chain a community doesn't quite capture the what's happening. Communities are built on reciprocation, distribution of responsibilities, knowing one another, and shared accountability. Coffee is a business.
But we can try to make it a fairer business, and one that allows farmers and their physical communities to prosper rather than subsist.
As a step in that direction, let's take October 1st to educate ourselves on coffee. An important part of that is getting familiar with regions of the world in which coffee is produced and learning about challenges farmers confront. In Colombia, small farmers deal with extremely high production costs. In recent years, many farmers have faced devastating losses as a result of coffee leaf rust. Renovating crops has resulted in many producers taking on loans that volatile coffee prices make difficult to pay back. As a result, many farmers are deeply indebted. Coffee rust has also ravaged swaths of coffee plantations in Central America. When farmers already struggle to invest in their crops, massive losses of volume to disease can be catastrophic.
Climate change also negatively impacts coffee production in many parts of the world. Oxfam reports that in Uganda, longer droughts and erratic rainfall affects coffee at the flowering and "filling of the berries" stage, reducing productivity.
This is the first phase of that journey from farm to cup. In subsequent phases, farmers harvest and process their coffee. Some have wet mills on their farms, other share use of a wet mill with other producers. After the beans dry, farmers bring them to points of purchase - some with their own cars, others with transport services, and still others by foot. Depending on quality of the coffee and who they sell to, farmers may receive the base price set by the international market on that day, a minimum price guaranteed by programs like Fairtrade, or they may receive a premium from programs such as Nespresso AAA. Farmers without a connection to such programs may not have had enough money to invest in herbicides and pesticides for their crops, and may have taken these inputs on credit from intermediaries. With the harvest and sale of their coffee, they'll have to pay those middlemen back, rendering them little bargaining power when it comes to price.
What can we do for farmers? How can the global coffee trade become a community like the one the International Coffee Organization describes?
The problem with coffee and all soft commodities is that there's no easy answer. Buying certified or verified coffee is certainly a step in the right direction. But just because something has a seal of approval doesn't mean we can assume we've done our part, and can sip our espressos with a clear conscience.
Here's an overview of three popular certifications, and a note on their weaknesses:
UTZ. As of 2014, UTZ was the largest sustainable farming certification program in the world. It promotes good agricultural practices, effective farm management, and some social and environmental standards. It has been criticized because it does not guarantee farmers a minimum price for their goods. That means that farmers that adhere to potentially hard-to-maintain standards mandated by UTZ are not rewarded with a price guarantee from the certification program. For information on impact, check out UTZ's 2014 annual report.
Max Havelaar/Faritrade Switzerland works to improve market access of Fairtrade products grown by producers in the Global South and to increase consumer awareness of the importance of Fairtrade. Fairtrade focuses on shortening the supply chain, establishing longterm sourcing relationships, enforcing a price guarantee for farmers, and paying a premium for Fairtrade products, enabling farmers to access are larger share of profits. The downside is that the Fairtrade system depends on consumer awareness and consumer willingness to pay higher prices for their coffee (and other goods). Without activism, awareness-raising, and conscientious consumers, it doesn't work. That said, Max Havelaar/Fairtrade has a strong presence in Switzerland, indicating that with effective advocacy of the principles, it can make a difference.
The Rainforest Alliance focuses above all on environmental objectives, with a nod towards the social. Their seal indicates goods that come from farms that maintain or are increasing tree coverage, work on conserving soil quality and decreasing erosion, limit chemical use, and protect wildlife. The Rainforest Alliance strives to facilitate access to education and healthcare. However, like UTZ, the Rainforest Alliance has been criticized for doing too little to guarantee a minimum price for farmers.
These are just three of the well known certifications we see on a relatively large scale in Swiss grocery stores. But looking deeper at what these seals mean helps us understand the complexity of the soft commodities market. Certified does not mean our fight is over. There is still a lot of work to be done before coffee producers and consumers are united in a global community.
Of course, it should also be mentioned that the poorest and most disenfranchised of farmers are generally unable to reach and uphold the standards of certification programs.
October 1st is a good day to take a look at our consumption habits and search for ways to improve the situation of farmers, workers, and the environment.