What Can Specialty Coffee Accomplish?

By Peter Giuliano

As we all know, coffee is a uniquely global product. Grown only within the tropics and typically consumed outside of them, coffee is one of the rare luxuries that transcends boundaries and cultures.

This unique element creates a deeply, completely global industry where we regularly use names and words from a number of different languages. We also tend to feel we are on a first-name basis with coffee producers half a globe away, and spend an unprecedented amount of time and resources interacting with the entire supply chain, from barista to roaster to coffee buyer to farmer.

However, it is likely to be immediately obvious to everyone that conditions are not uniform throughout the vast network of coffee. The nations where coffee is produced are largely still developing. Many face serious socio-political and human issues including hunger, disease and deprivation. The ironies abound: a luxury crop grown in places where luxuries are few; coffee as the fuel of the progressive movement, produced in a system that sometimes echoes a colonialist past; a beverage that is extolled as one of the great culinary experiences but is produced as a mere cash crop by many. These ironies lead to some stark realities: food insecurity—a polite phrase for hunger and a problem that has largely been solved in developed countries—is still widespread in the developing nations where much of our coffee is grown. Preventable diseases such as malaria still affect many of these same countries.

Environmental protection, long-term agricultural planning, monetary systems, land title, family planning, and accessible health systems are all too often restricted to the places where coffee is consumed, not where it is produced.

Occasionally, this reality comes into sharp focus in surprising ways: the screening of After the Harvest: Fighting Hunger in the Coffeelands at the most recent SCAA Event shocked many, reminding us that access to food cannot be taken for granted even within the most thoughtfully executed supply chains.

Responsibility vs. Self Interest vs. ?

I am proud to say that the specialty coffee industry has a long history of meeting these issues head-on, and making tangible change all over the world. Specialty coffee merchants have gotten involved in their own supply chains, taking responsibility for their coffee sources and seeking to understand the social and environmental implications of their work. Coffee people have founded development organizations like Coffee Kids and Grounds for Health, which seek to focus positive attention and resources on coffee origin. Roasters often execute their own independent projects—digging wells, supplying livestock, purchasing school supplies—in the communities where they work. Getting involved in a positive way within our global marketplace is a proud tradition among the specialty coffee community. We’ve achieved much and made tremendous change.

But problems persist. Can the specialty coffee community take on these larger problems with as much courage and ingenuity as we have in the past? Are we ready for a bigger, tougher challenge?

Human Needs

Access to food, medical care and education are basic human needs in communities everywhere. Alas, these are not uniformly accessible throughout our trade network. We all know this, and most of us in specialty coffee are involved in addressing it, often in personal ways. These ways are often highly focused and satisfying: purchasing supplies for a medical clinic near a farm we work with, donating money for a water project near a community we travel to, providing a quality bonus for a farmer who has produced an exceptionally stellar lot of coffee. These are wonderful, positive ways to work. But do they move the needle on larger, more universal problems? And when we’re making these choices are we as informed as we should be?

There is a discipline called “Development” that studies the sometimes unintended effects of these kinds of investments in developing countries. Should we increase our engagement with development professionals and agencies, to increase the effectiveness of our work? Should coffee companies who seek to make a difference in these developing countries which supply our precious coffees employ and interact more deeply with development professionals, or should we continue on our path of improvisation and instinct?

Socio-Political Resources

Once basic human needs are addressed, socio-political needs rise in importance. Land and water rights, access to credit, and legal resources are critical if we want our partners to prosper. These are incredibly complex issues, and can be amazingly difficult to understand even in one country, never mind the dozens of countries in which we regularly work in. While the buyers from coffee companies certainly know about these issues, they rarely can do much more than commiserate with coffee producers and traders. The question is whether we can become engaged in more substantial ways to address these important issues. Traditionally, specialty coffee companies have not gotten engaged in policy and legal issues in the countries where we work. Is it time for this to change? What kind of resources would we need to begin?

The Environment and Agricultural Transformation

Coffee agriculture, like all agriculture, is a long-term interaction with the natural environment. Most coffee people are environmentalists of some stripe; nearly every coffee person I have ever known takes deep satisfaction in the natural beauty and powerful feeling of visiting a coffee farm. We often talk about the ways that a coffee farm can be a model of sustainability in agriculture. Coffee companies may embrace or eschew environmental certifications, choosing one that seems to fit their values, or rejecting them altogether in favor of a system based on the impressions gathered on visits to the farm, sort of an, “I’ve been there and I know it’s sustainable” approach.

However few, if any, coffee companies actually employ ecologists, or have any formal relationship with professionals in the field of agroecology. Do we need progress here? Is it time for us to increase our knowledge and understanding of agriculture and the way it interacts with the natural environment? Is it time for us to actually seek out professional development here?

We’re at the dawning of a new era in coffee. We have the opportunity to take on—in a larger, more permanent way—some of the issues that face every person on the globe. Coffee has been an important part of progress before. Can we do it again? Can we make an even bigger difference than we have already made?

So many questions that for now, at least, remain unanswered. It’s clear, however, that we need to make a new beginning, and take this far more seriously than we have in the past. We’ve traditionally thought we were doing enough by supporting coffee “charities” or doing a few special projects. However, it’s time to build businesses that are, in their very nature, transformational. We have an opportunity that no other industry has—to make major change in agricultural sustainability, in international economic policy, in solving the most basic and pervasive human problems.

We won’t be able to do that without investment in the professional disciplines that will help us navigate the future: in sustainability and development experts, chemists, ecologists, and political scientists. Expertise in this area is absolutely essential if we seek to make any change at all. Similarly, we need to grasp the role our institutions—like the SCAA—can have in determining our future.

The earnest, amateur efforts we have made so far have been fantastic, but it’s time to step up our game and actually make the development of a sustainable industry a top priority.

Peter Giuliano is director of coffee and co-owner of Counter Culture Coffee, a specialty coffee roasting company based in Durham, NC. He has worked with fine coffees since 1988. He is the immediate past president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.