Food Security and Coffee: Ending Seasonal Hunger

Excerpt from KIM ELENA IONESCU’s introduction of the newly republished SCA White Paper titled Food Security and Coffee: Ending Seasonal Hunger

The story of the SCA white papers begins with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) ratified by the United Nations in the year 2000. These eight goals were designed to serve as a global, collective agenda for sustainability, and they were simultaneously ambitious and broad – for example, “Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger” was number one. The Specialty Coffee Association of America became an official signatory of the MDGs in 2005 and the organization enlisted the support of the volunteer leaders in its Sustainability Committee, which later became the Sustainability Council, to realize the potential of its commitment. In 2012, the Council embarked upon a project to write a series of papers on these global sustainability themes directed at the membership of the association and the broader coffee community. Each of these critical issue briefs, or white papers, would frame an issue, explain the relevance of the issue to coffee, and offer case studies and recommendations on the role of industry actors ranging from coffee producers to baristas, and even coffee drinkers.

Between 2012 and 2016, volunteers collaborated to write papers on five themes: food security, gender equality, farmworker inclusion, water security, and climate change. The SCAA published each paper upon its completion and they have been available as free, downloadable resources ever since, so it’s not surprising to find references to them across the specialty coffee industry – from articles to lectures at events. The launch of the Sustainability Center within the unified Specialty Coffee Association in 2017 presented an opportunity to share the knowledge contained within these papers with a larger and more diverse audience, so in 2018 we are republishing the papers. The second edition of each paper will correct errors to the first and, where relevant, reflect changes in nomenclature (e.g., the name of a company or a place, or the title of an individual). Here in the introduction, we will comment on the evolution of the coffee industry’s thinking and actions on the issue discussed in the paper.

Download Food Security and Coffee: Ending Seasonal Hunger, the newly republished SCA White Paper.

A Blueprint to End Hunger in the Coffeelands was the first of the white papers to be completed and the only one published before the eight MDGs adopted by the United Nations in 2000 were replaced by 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. The now-familiar structure for the papers – framing the issue, explaining its relevance to coffee, offering recommendations, and presenting case studies – was established by this food security white paper, and at times the language and tone feel rough compared to the papers that followed. The case studies and recommendations, on the other hand, are just as compelling as they were upon its original publication in 2013 because of the state of the commodity futures price for coffee, which dropped below US$1.00 in August 2018 for the first time since 2006. Coffee farmers and farmer organizations are using every communication platform available to them to repeat what they have been telling industry, governments, and civil society for years: that when farmers don’t profit from coffee production, they are forced to spend their meager earnings satisfying the basic needs of their households. After buying food, they may have nothing left to invest in maintaining their farms, much less in growing more, better-tasting coffee. We hear this message from around the world, but the abandonment of coffee farms and the hollowing-out of communities of coffee growers is occurring fastest in Mesoamerica, among the very families whose experiences form the foundation for this paper on food security.

The connection between the effects of the commodity futures price for coffee on farm profitability and household food security might not be immediately obvious, but these two issues are inextricably linked in the pursuit of coffee sector sustainability. In recent years, industry has responded to reports that coffee farming isn’t profitable by investing in trainings to increase production efficiency and yields per hectare. While this strategy is effective for some farms and its benefit to industry – in the form of more coffee – is tangible and immediate, higher volumes often come with higher production costs. A high-efficiency strategy may also increase a producer’s dependence on coffee production for their income without offering any protection from the volatility of the global futures market. Resilient coffee supply chains will depend on our being able to offer stable alternatives, including alternative sources of income.

The recommendations in this paper and the supporting case studies all prioritize long-term resilience, but they have also delivered short-term returns: since the first edition of the paper, Pueblo a Pueblo’s organic school gardens program has continued to grow – the gardens yielded 4337 pounds of produce last year and the organization has added an additional youth empowerment component that trains young people in garden management and planning. The Café y Miel network founded by Food 4 Farmers is flourishing with the support of not only coffee industry partners but also Glory Bee, a honey and natural products company which trained 25 farmers in beekeeping in 2017. After the Harvest, the film Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (now Keurig Dr Pepper) supported, inspired a group of coffee roasters and the SCA to found the Coalition for Coffee Communities, which began its collective work funding a food security project in Jinotega, Nicaragua and subsequently invested in a landscape assessment in the region to better understand the challenges facing coffee farmers and industry’s role in addressing them. The Roya Recovery Project concluded, but some of the companies that came together to fund the initiative in 2013 are sustaining partners for World Coffee Research, which published a manual for leaf rust prevention in 2016 and continues to fund research on different strategies to prevent and control rust, as well as to develop coffee varieties resistant to the fungus. Each of these initiatives has been a success in its own right, and with market prices languishing at their current levels, anyone with a stake in coffee’s future would be wise to evaluate the relative urgency of productivity increases and income stabilization.

The UN replaced its eight Millennium Development Goals with 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. The SDGs are more specific than the previous set of goals, but progress is predicated on recognizing their interdependence.

We cannot hope to advance in food security without understanding the economic, social, and environmental obstacles facing households of coffee producers, nor can we address any community, anywhere in the world, in isolation. In our events, our education, and our research, the Specialty Coffee Association will continue to support and promote work being done by industry stakeholders to advance food security and we will continue to share our own progress.

Thank you for downloading this paper, pursuing food security in specialty coffee wherever you are, and for supporting the SCA’s commitment to make coffee better.

KIM ELENA IONESCU is the Chief Sustainability Officer at the Specialty Coffee Association.