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coffee beans

So far, I’ve not written about coffee. Coffee is fairly symbolic of ethical consumerism. I suppose it seemed, well, a bit of an obvious place to start. But as a passionate coffee drinker, who consumes at least one, fairly strong cup of black coffee every morning, I realised I didn’t know that much about it. I thought it was about time I looked a little deeper than the Fair Trade label.

So what should I know about my morning cuppa?

Well, those coffee lovers amongst you will be glad to hear that, ecologically speaking at least, drinking coffee is a fairly good thing to do.

Here’s why.

Coffee is an evergreen crop. It will keep giving fruit for as long as fifty years. That means that it doesn’t have to be constantly dug up and replanted like many crops which is bad for the soil. Instead, coffee plants help stablise and build soil and prevent erosion.

Coffee prefers shade, so it can grow in the shade of a larger forest which means that, unlike many forms of agriculture, coffee farmers protect rainforest and don’t clear it. Shady coffee plantations also encourage a large range of biodiversity including birds. Birds love eating bugs and so this removes much of the need to use chemical pesticides. So growing organic coffee is relatively easy.

The majority of the world’s coffee – around 70% – is grown on small farms by independent farmers. Tea, in contrast, tends to be grown in large plantations owned by big multinationals. So by buying coffee you are usually helping to support small independent farmers who are farming in ecologically sound and sustainable ways. If they couldn’t make a living from growing coffee, they might consider farming something much more environmentally damaging or illegal crops like coca or marijuana.

Until the end of the 1980s, the coffee industry was regulated by the International Coffee Organisation (ICO). The ICO was made up of producer and consumer countries and aimed to keep supply matching demand and therefore prices at a realistic level. However, disagreements between the partners and the general trend of trade deregulation led to dismantling this quota system.

Suddenly, there were more and more people growing coffee. Countries such as Vietnam invested heavily in coffee and became a new major supplier.

Many of the new players, in order to compete, began growing “sun coffee” rather than cultivating it in the shade. Growing coffee in direct sunlight means that it produces coffee quicker but the plants only last 10-15 years and generally require more chemical fertilisers and pesticides. It also often means that land is cleared to grow it. Some campaign groups have suggested that this is helping destroy a large number of the world’s natural ecosystems.

The increase in supply wasn’t good for the farmers either. The large amounts of coffee on the market led to coffee prices crashing, hitting rock bottom in 2001. Despite having recovered a little over recent years, the plentiful supply means that the poor old farmers get paid a pittance for their beans.

And to make matters worse, the coffee-buying market is dominated by multinationals who by their very nature, chase bigger profits and make the most of this over supply. The big UK coffee manufactures Nestle, Kraft (Maxwell House and Kenco) and Sara Lee (Douwe Egberts) have all been accused of maintaining the status quo.

And this is, of course, where Fair Trade comes in.

The Fair Trade mark can be applied to products that have been sourced following ethical trading principals. These principals include paying a minimum price.

The mark was originally developed by the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone with the idea to link co-operative stores in London with producers in the developing world and cut out the middle men. The scheme was set up with more in mind than just ensuring a fair price. It was about helping fund community projects.

Since then, companies such as Café Direct have built on this ethos and today, as well as paying their farms a higher price for their goods, the company have also invested £20,000 in project such as tree nurseries, school scholarships and local roads.

In the shops, fair trade coffee only costs fractionally more. But the farmers who grow it can receive up to three times the amount they would from non-Fair Trade coffee. It’s still not much, or perhaps what many would consider ‘fair’, but it’s a lot better than coffee without the mark. Personally, I’d even pay more if I thought it was going to the folk who grew it.

Then there’s the issue of instant coffee. In most of the world, instant coffee only makes up 20% of the coffee drunk. In the UK, 80% of the coffee we drink is instant.

To produce instant coffee, you take a great quality product, that has a long shelf life and put it through a series of energy-intensive industrial processes to make a far inferior product. If you’re making decaf, you’re also chemically removing the only worthwhile ingredient. What are we thinking?

So next time you’re out buying coffee, buy the real thing. Buy Fair Trade. Ideally, buy organic too. It’s quite hard to find coffee that is both, but Percol and Café Direct both do it. They also have the advantage that they relatively small companies and are not owned by multinationals and they invest in coffee growing communities. And if you can, buy shade-grown coffee. Most organic coffee is.

Tomorrow morning, as I’m sipping my coffee, I’m going to take a moment and ponder who might have grown it. I think you should too.

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