Poor victims of Espresso Nov03
One billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide every day. After
petroleum, coffee is the most heavily traded commodity with growers in 50
countries competing fiercely with each other in a market where quality has
improved and prices have plummeted. Over 70% of all coffee beans come from
smallholdings of almost 25 million peasants. These farmers face grinding
poverty as international markets dictate the price they will earn. They
starve whilst we enjoy a wide range of highly priced coffees stylishly
presented in luxurious surroundings.
At current market rates, these peasant producers are paid about
US$1.20 per kilo of quality beans. This equates to 1% of the price we pay
for freshly ground coffee in the shops. Robusta coffee yields more
caffeine per cup than Arabica and it takes 42 beans to make an espresso.
Prices for a cup of coffee vary from US$1.50 to US$5 in coffee bars and
restaurants. Out of this price, only a mere US$0.01 goes to the grower!
With falling world prices and increasing costs of herbicides,
pesticides and farm machinery, the coffee farmers are unable to even
recover the cost of production. Millions of growers have no experience of
any other crop and in many cases diversification is not possible as coffee
is the only crop suitable for mountainous terrain, high temperatures and
extreme humidity. Therefore, the poor coffee farmers remain trapped in
During 2002, the World Food Programme, the EU and USAID blamed the
coffee crisis for malnutrition and food security issues in Honduras,
Guatemala, Ethiopia, Peru and Vietnam. Whilst education is free in some of
these countries, farmers cannot afford food, shoes, uniform and books for
their children attending school.
The International Coffee Agreement (ICA) guaranteed coffee export
prices at levels that gave a reasonable income to growers. Western
governments supported such a scheme to minimise social unrest and keep
communism at bay in such poor countries. The arrangement was cumbersome,
but it worked. However, after the end of the Cold War, the US abandoned
the ICA and since then prices have plummeted. Furthermore, world
production has increased because Brazil continues to mechanise its farms
and Vietnam, a newcomer to this market, has offered land and subsidies to
its peasant farmers resulting in it being the second largest world
producer of coffee.
What can we do to help these poor coffee farmers? Farmers in
northern Nicaragua have taken on an initiative to supply coffee to the
fair trade market, securing a guaranteed price significantly higher than
the current market price. Fairtrade, supported by western government
development ministries, NGOs and others, has become a lifeline for many
coffee producers. Globally, almost 200 coffee co-operatives have been
established representing over 700,000 farmers. The share of Fairtrade
sales in the UK has grown from 5% in 1999 to 12% last year. This is not
bad when we consider that the big roasters (Nestlé, Proctor & Gamble,
Philip Morris(Kraft), and Sara Lee) spend £40m on advertising in the UK
alone and have 70% of the world market between them.
It is encouraging to note that Starbucks and Costa Coffee do offer
Fairtrade coffee at their outlets. They have been working with
Conservation International to support and encourage sustainable production
of high quality coffee. They have also begun to establish direct links
with farms and growers’ co-operatives offering them 3 to 5 year
contracts. UK supermarkets like Sainsburys, Co-op and Tesco are also
stocking Fairtrade coffee.
Whilst Fairtrade alone cannot solve the crisis of the poor coffee
farmers, it would be helpful if the public could actively express its
concern by choosing to support its products. As the poor farmers seek
opportunities to eliminate the middlemen who erode their earnings, this
form of action is one way of helping the poorest directly and avoids
giving handouts to corrupt governments.
Let us, as coffee drinkers, support the poor coffee growers worldwide by buying their products. We can then wake up each morning and enjoy the smell and taste of our espresso without victims!