Monday, October 01, 2012

Elite Coffee Limits

Most of my friends and acquaintances -- and even people who happen to see the family car -- know that I care a lot about coffee. In fact, a favorite part of my web site is the Caring for Coffee page, where I provide details about how to get the best flavor from the brew. I must admit that I care about the coffee for some of the same reasons I care about other foods and beverages -- I have learned to appreciate differences that result from the selection of ingredients and approaches to preparation for many foods. Our food blog celebrates many of those discoveries.

As with foods, however, the appreciation of good coffee also has a lot to do with wanting a better life for farmers and a better relationship with the land. If coffee tastes terrible, it is probably grown and traded under conditions that were not good for soil, water, or farmers. Conversely, if the coffee is very good, the chances are improved that the farmer and the land have been treated fairly.

For a variety of reasons that I discuss in some detail in my courses (and elsewhere on this blog), the free market does not always (or even often) treat labor and land fairly. For that reason, social and environmental certifications have emerged that create "fair" markets that can often improve the treatment of both. These have empowered us to act as consumers where we have failed as citizens. That is, where the political process has not succeeded in protecting human rights and the environment, we can "vote with our wallets" to affect change far from home.

The limitations of this approach are three-fold: first, those with an interest in justice have far fewer dollars to spend than those who either do not care or those who have an active interest in injustice. Second, and related to the first, the certifications themselves are susceptible to being "captured" by those who are thriving in the free market. Witness recent changes in Fair Trade certification brought about by Starbucks and other heavyweights.

Third -- and the impetus for this post -- certification programs help commodity producers only by taking them out of commodity markets. This is helpful for those producers of coffee, tea, cocoa, and the like who are in a position to improve their quality and therefore their livelihoods, but it does nothing to change the lives of millions for whom these products will always be commodities. And it does even less for the people and places responsible for all of the goods that will almost certainly remain commodities -- corn, wheat, copper, and the like. 

I have seen first-hand the ways in which attention to quality has helped farm families and the land, so I remain committed to good coffee and the good it can do. But I am also convinced by the argument of blogger @nickcho, who argues that an extreme focus on the pinnacles of coffee quality can turn coffee advocates into coffee snobs, members of the One Percent (or, really, the Point Zero One Percent), for whom boutique coffee can become an end, rather than a means.

Where does all this lead us? Coffee paralysis? I do not think so. In the short run, we should get to know as much as we can about our roasters. What have they had to say about changes in fair trade? What are they actually doing in the field? 

In the long run, however, we need to take more responsibility as citizens than we do as consumers. We need to push politicians -- regardless of party -- to prioritize human rights and the environment when they negotiate trade agreements and other areas of domestic and international law and diplomacy.

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