Coffee, Justice and Love

Coffee – it’s such a small but innocent pleasure. But could it also hold the key to global change?

Believe it or not, after oil, coffee is the world’s second largest traded commodity. In 50 countries, 20 million farming families (60 to 80 million people) depend on coffee for their income. Every day, they tend the bushes, pick the berries, then depulp, dry and pack them, so that you can enjoy your daily hit of java.

It takes 100 beans to make a cup, and a tree yields 4,000 beans a year, so if you drink two cups of coffee a day you will need 18 coffee trees devoted solely to you – and it’s five years before a tree is fully productive.

Behind the glitz of the trendy coffee houses, however, a terrible tragedy is unfolding. Since 1998, the world price of coffee has fallen by 50% to the lowest for 30 years, because of surplus production, and the collapse of the coffee marketing agreement that was in place until 1989. Growers who were getting $1.20 a pound in 1998 are now getting less than 50 cents (prices in US$); some earn as little as 10 cents.

While the coffee-growers are struggling with terrible poverty, often earning less than $3 a day, Nestlé’s profits rose to $1 billion in 2001 ($2.7 million a day), which they attribute to "favourable commodity prices". Starbucks posted a 41% rise in profits in the first quarter of 2001, and Starbucks chairman, Howard Schultz, who earned $2.1 million in 2000, bought himself a $200 million stake in the Seattle SuperSonics basketball team.

The world’s coffee business is dominated by four large corporations – Proctor and Gamble (Fulgors), Philip Morris, Sara Lee and Nestlé, who control 60% of US coffee sales and 40% of the world market. 90% of the world’s coffee – the canned stuff that fills the supermarket shelves – is ‘technified’: it is grown under the full sun, requiring the destruction of the forest cover, and because the sun-baked soil quickly loses its fertility, it requires the constant use of pesticides and fertilizers.

It gets worse: researchers at the University of Hawaii have developed a genetically engineered coffee tree, and started a business (Integrated Coffee Technologies Inc – to develop it. They have made the berries stop ripening just short of maturity. Once the whole field is ripe, the berries can be artificially ripened at the same time by a chemical spray, allowing them to be harvested mechanically – requiring less labour.

The remaining 10% is grown for specialty consumers who care about the taste, and it is here that change is happening. Socially and environmentally conscious coffee drinkers who want their coffee grown without chemicals, and who want their growers to receive a decent price, can now buy Fair Trade certified coffee. (TransFair canada: TransFair USA:

This guarantees that the coffee is grown by small family farms and co-operatives in a way that is shade-grown and organic, and that the co-op receives a minimum $1.26 a pound ($1.41 for certified organic), plus access to financial and technical support to help them to avoid the middle-men and loan-sharks (known as ‘coyotes’) who prey on them. The Fair Trade logo gives you the assurance that a farm has been certified as fair trade. On Vancouver Island, the Salt Spring Roasting Company (http:// imports certified Fair Trade coffee, and there are two importers (selling San Miguel and Ometepe coffee) who have trustworthy but not certified fair trade relationships with their growers. (

The Fair Trade coffee movement started in Holland in 1988, and there are 17 Fair Trade labeling initiatives around the world. In Switzerland, 5% of all retail coffee sold is certified Fair Trade. As John Cavanagh says, at the Institute for Policy Studies, "Fair trade brings the benefits of trade into the hands of communities that need it most. It sets new social and environmental standards for international companies, and demonstrates that trade can indeed be a vehicle for sustainable development." Fair trade coffee allows trade to be a vehicle for justice and love, instead of suffering and exploitation.

This, therefore, is a direct plea. If you are a coffee drinker, and you care about the conditions in which your coffee is grown, please start drinking fair trade coffee. The local sources are listed in the Directory, inside. If you are involved with a church, school, business, college, city hall or other organization, please ask that they change to fair trade coffee. Ask your local coffee shop and grocery store to start selling it. Starbucks have agreed to sell Fair Trade beans in the USA, and brew it once a month. It’s a start, but they are not doing it in Canada. Please ask them to.

There is far more to be done, but this is a beginning. I am not a coffee drinker, but I hear that fair trade coffee tastes delicious, so there’s no sacrifice on taste. There is a huge sacrifice being made by the growers and their families, however – which we have the power to change.

Guy Dauncey is author of "Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Climate Change” and President of the BC Sustainable Energy Association. Visit his website at: