Thursday, April 26, 2007

The price of a cup of coffee

What does a cup of coffee cost? Maybe around $1.19 at a convenience store... and even less than that when we brew it at home. Coffee is cheap, and pretty much any of us can drink it any time we like. But, as with most agricultural production, coffee production entails many more costs than consumers in industrialized countries are compelled to consider when we lay out our cash. What is the real price for a cup of coffee? This is what I have been trying to figure out for quite some time now. Here is what I know.

Coffee has traditionally been grown, at least in the Western Hempsphere, in tropical forests under the shade of a diverse understory. These areas by nature are centers of extreme biodiversity, and they provide critical wintering habitat to many species of North American migratory birds. These forests, in addition, are powerhouses where carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and converted back into oxygen--a process our planet depends on to keep levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere down to a safe level.

As the demand for coffee has grown, coffee producers have turned to new farming methods to achieve a more large-scale crop. More coffee can be produced in the open sun than beneath the understory cover of these tropical forests, so forests have been clearcut to make way for agricultural land that can be cultivated to meet the growing demand for coffee. Farming this way increases the need for fertilizers to artificially enhance the soil and for pesticides to protect the crop from new threats. The implications are severe: Crucial habitat for exotic and migratory birds, as well as other species, has been lost, leading to rapid extinction--very often killing off species that humans had not yet even discovered. The loss of the flora which naturally enriches the soil with minerals has led to the dumping of chemicals all over the land. Basically, these lands that were once forests with rich and healthy soil are now barren, dry, and on life support. These chemical fertilizers cannot keep the land arable forever; one day that land will become useless, unable to support any green life. The chemicals from the fertilizers and the pesticides have to go somewhere--so they eventually end up poisoning the water supply. Not to mention that every lost acre of forest is a loss for the atmosphere; carbon dioxide builds up, as fewer trees are around to convert it.

The human labor cost is dire as well. When people of industrialized nations demand lower prices on coffee, the true cost of producing that coffee does not change. Since we, the consumers, are no longer bearing that cost, then we know that someone else must be--the laborers on these large-scale coffee farms. They work long hours in the hot tropics, receiving an inequitable wage for their labor. They have no choice--somehow they must earn a living for themselves and their families. We in America thought that slavery had been abolished long ago. Yet we consume products like coffee, whose artificially deflated prices make it easily accessible in large quantities to everyone (coffee was considered a luxury not so long ago), and we do so without any regard for the labor conditions under which it was produced for us. That sounds a lot like slavery to me.

When consumers make ethically sound decisions in their purchases, that action speaks very loudly to those who operate in the production of commodities. If we choose coffee that is organic, fair trade certified, and shade grown, we are supporting a return to environmentally sound agricultural practices as well as a fair wage to those whose livelihoods are linked to our coffee consumption. Sure, you pay a higher price for coffee when you make these decisions--but the price you pay is much closer to the "real" cost of coffee than the artificially deflated prices that we see on most mainstream brands. Just as meat would be far more expensive to consumers if it were not subsidized by the government (another reason to go vegan), other luxury items like coffee, and even chocolate and cane sugar, wear attractive price tags today that do not reflect their true cost.

I have made a switch to buying only organic coffee that is fair trade certified. It can be difficult to find coffee that is explicitly guaranteed to be organic, fair trade certified, and shade grown. What is the interplay between these three elements? I have been doing some research to find out, and I came across this excellent site called Coffee and Conservation. Take a look at this link for some practical guidelines on how to ensure that your coffee is truly produced in an ethically sound and sustainable manner, from an environmental and a social viewpoint. I encourage you to explore this site some, as it is packed with valuable information about what is sustainable and what is not, and what we as consumers and concerned citizens of this planet can do about it. The cost of producing a cup of coffee may be far removed from us, but we will all inevitably bear the cost of our choices in the end.

1 comment:

KleoPatra said...

i'm not a coffee drinker, but i was transfixed by this post, filled with very important info... so precious, that bird... as well as all the animals there... Thank you, Laura