This afternoon I will travel to Guatemala City to participate in four days of discussions around coffee rust convened by World Coffee Research and PROMECAFE, a network of national coffee programs in Central America and the Caribbean. The objective of the meeting is to develop a more detailed strategy for responding to the coffee rust epidemic — one that reflects a consensus among the many actors who make the coffee trade work. The region’s governments have taken the initiative in the process, agreeing last month in Costa Rica to a plan of action for 2013 that will provide a framework for both our discussions this week and the years of investment and work that will follow. But that process did not involve many of the actors whose participation will be necessary if the plan is to be a success: roasters, aid agencies, input providers, certifiers, etc.
What does the plan say? I only saw the original plan for the first time last Friday, and I don’t think details have been made available yet in English. Until now.
There seem to be very few conversations in coffee these days that are not influenced in some way by the coffee rust crisis in Central America.
And there are other long-standing conversations that seem to be assuming renewed importance in the current context. One of these is the return on the investments that farmers make to add value to their coffee through quality improvements and certifications.
While plenty of coffee experts have weighed in on this issue over the years, the words that resonate loudest in my mind are those of Bob Dylan:
Businessman, they drink my wine.
Plowmen, they dig my earth.
None of them along the line
Know what any of it is worth.
The threat posed to production by coffee leaf rust is weighing heavily on the minds of coffee farmers these days. As they respond, their decisions about how much to invest in coffee quality and whether to farm organically will likely depend in large part on the implications of their choices on farm productivity. But those decisions will also depend in some measure on how willing they believe buyers will be to compensate them for their efforts at differentiation.
The coffee rust epidemic in Central America has been widely covered in industry and mainstream media. But for all the ink that has been spilled on coffee rust, there has been relatively little information about its social and economic impacts at the household level on coffee growing families. Fortunately, that information gap is beginning to narrow.
Green Mountain Coffee Roasters is one company that been hard at work in recent months surveying its partners in the field to get a better handle on the impacts of coffee rust on the growers and farmworkers in its supply chain. (While visiting with farmers in Honduras, they shot this stirring video.)
Colleen Popkin is the Supply Chain Community Outreach Manager for Coffee at Green Mountain. She has been coordinating the company’s survey efforts, which have reached 111 of the company’s supply chain partners to date. Green Mountain will present the data is has collected during a panel discussion on coffee rust at the SCAA Expo on Friday. Today, Colleen speaks with the CRS Coffeelands Blog about the survey.
Long before and quite apart from the coffee rust outbreak in Central America, I proposed a presentation for this year’s SCAA Expo on what we have been calling “the productivity gap” — the difference between what smallholder farmers CAN produce and what they actually DO produce. The productivity gap is big, and its effect on smallholder income is significant. A leading cause is the advanced age of the region’s coffee plantations. The coffeelands in Central America are filled with semi-productive plants that look something like this:
In order for smallholder farmers to be able to consistently generate the kinds of yields they need to turn a profit, their coffee should look more like this.
Unfortunately, thanks to coffee rust, the coffeelands in Central America are littered with plants that look more like this:
Central America desperately needed to renovate its coffee fields on a massive scale even before the current coffee rust crisis. The bad news is that now the need for renovation is even bigger, more urgent. The estimates I have seen suggest that it will cost $800 million to $1 billion to renovate the region’s coffee farms on the scale that is required.
The good news, if you can call it that, is that now there is no denying the need for renovation, and there is a greater likelihood farmers will get the funding they needed anyway.
In the end, the coffee rust discussion has may have superseded the issue of the productivity gap. (Ironically, my presentation on the productivity gap is scheduled opposite a panel discussion on coffee rust on Friday morning.) Still, my presentation may be helpful in framing the issue of smallholder productivity and profitability as we prepare for region-wide renovation in Central America. It is based on data we collected and work we did to boost smallholder productivity in Mexico and Central America between 2008 and 2011 as part of our CAFE Livelihoods project. For anyone interested in the topic who can’t make my presentation (or will be next door participating in the coffee rust discussion, where I would be if I weren’t otherwise engaged), here is a sneak preview of what I will present.
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Bean Counting: Smallholder Productivity and Profitability is scheduled for Friday, 12 April 2013 at 10:30 am in room 251.
Leaf Rust: Testing our Resiliency as an Industry is scheduled for the same time slot in room 252A.
The estimates of productive and economic losses to coffee leaf rust in Central America are nothing short of staggering. Half of all coffee affected. Hundreds of millions of pounds of production losses projected. Hundreds of thousands of jobs lost. Economic losses running into the billions of dollars.
Against this backdrop, we should not be surprised by the rising chorus of calls for urgent and decisive action, or the new industry investments being announced every week. We need sprinters who can effectively mobilize field-level actions now, during this production cycle, to mitigate the impacts of coffee rust on the 2013/14 harvest. But we also need to think about the middle distances, and how farmers can invest in making their farms productive again over the next 3-5 years. And we need marathon runners who can commit to the patient, long-term work of building local capacity to support the coffee sector over the long haul.
The current coffee leaf rust crisis in Central America may have come on quickly, but it was not created overnight. Lasting responses will take time, and will require more cross-sector collaboration than even the pathologically collaborative specialty coffee industry is accustomed to. read more…
This week, more than 15 months after it broke with Fairtrade International and rewrote the rules of Fair Trade for the U.S. marketplace with its Fair Trade for All initiative, Fair Trade USA has advanced a plan to measure the impacts of FT4All on all coffee farmers and farmworkers in the Fair Trade system. The approach seems to honor the calls we have made here and here and here and elsewhere for a process that is transparent, independent, system-wide and long-term.
Last week, agricultural authorities and coffee organizations from Central America holed up in Panama for two days with research institutes, regional banks and UN agencies to try to hammer out a plan for responding to the coffee leaf rust outbreak. As I trolled the web for news of the meeting’s results, I came across this description of a bold, five-year plan to help smallholder farmers address coffee rust:
Only, this was not written last week. It was published in 1984, four years into the region’s first coordinated response to coffee leaf rust disease. As I dove deeper and deeper into hundreds of pages of research and funding requests to address coffee rust in Central America during the 1980s, I couldn’t escape a sense of what Yogi Berra called “deja vu all over again.”
Central America has been here before. Can it respond this time in a way that will keep future generations from having to make massive investments to respond to the next coffee rust emergency?
Stephen Macatonia directs Union Hand Roasted in London, one of the UK’s leading Direct Trade roasters. Last week he published this thoughtful piece in the Guardian — the latest contribution to the ongoing debate between advocates and practitioners of Fair Trade and Direct Trade over whose trade is fairest of them all.
For our part, we like them both. And we like them best when they go together.
Last week, Colombia’s government and disgruntled coffee growers reached agreement to end a strike in the coffeelands that was brief but messy, including clashes between coffee growers and Colombian security forces, expressions of solidarity by actors ranging from FARC guerrillas to an ex-president, official allegations of external agitation, and blockades of major highways that led to economic losses, price hikes on food and gas, and the deaths of at least three people whose ambulances were caught up in the blockades.
Headlines proclaiming the end of the strike focused on the government’s commitment of a staggering $444 million in estimated price supports for coffee growers for 2013. The subsidy issues was a leading storyline, but it hardly the only one.
During last year’s SCAA Symposium, Liam Brody of Root Capital urged participants to be “pathologically collaborative” in addressing the ills that continue to ail specialty coffee. Peter Giuliano suggested soon afterward that Liam had “blown up the Twitterverse” with the memorable call to cooperation. But the full echo of that call may only be sounding now: it is hard to imagine a situation that calls for more pathological collaboration than the leaf rust crisis currently affecting Central America.