I have been writing in recent weeks about the issue of hunger. You may be asking yourself what hunger has to do with coffee. Unfortunately, and notwithstanding the extraordinary advances made by the sustainable and certified coffee movements, hunger is still common in the coffeelands.
Here are a few milestones in the research around sustainable coffees and their impact on smallholder farmers (complete with links to light reading for your bedside table):
- Way back in 2003, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization published an excellent study on social and environmental certifications for coffee and other cash crops. Chapter 6 of the study offers an impact assement that suggests the benefits of Fair Trade on such fundamental indicators of human well-being as food security is, well…underwhelming.
- Then in 2005, Oxfam America comissioned leading academics specializing in the political economies of smallholder coffee to conduct an impact assessment of leading coffee certifications in Mesoamerica. Oxfam never felt comfortable enough with the underlying research to publish the results, but the report did suggest that the impacts of Fair Trade on household income, food security and migration are negligible.
- Beginning in 2006, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters teamed up with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the Sustainable Food Lab in a pretty extraordinary effort to document the impacts on the livelihoods of farmers of participation in the Green Mountain supply chain. The results of that research, some of which were published in the Time magazine piece, suggest that even farmers selling into the “sustainable coffee” niche of the specialty market are going hungry for several months a year.
- Last year, a team of researchers from CIAT published another impact study on coffee certifications that found…guess what? Fair Trade has a limited impact on poverty alleviation and food security.
In sum, it is getting harder to ignore the dissonance bewteen the messages that have been used to promote certified or sustainable coffees in the United States and the lived realities on the ground in coffee communities.
This conclusion does not have to be a threat to coffee certifications if the movement that promotes them embraces the evidence and uses it as a way to seek improvements that have more promise than current practices to achieve its stated goals. Fair Trade pioneer Jonathan Rosenthal puts it best in his powerful reflection at the end of this article when he says that Fair Trade is a door, not a solution. If we take the livelihoods of smallholder producers as the point of departure — and primordial concern — then we have little choice put to pursue this evidence where it takes us.