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.
This is a powerful point. In the last two years has any newer research altered the picture you describe above? (I’ve a host of studies at the office that I could thumb through, but maybe you know off hand.)
And – btw – the link to what Jonathan Rosenthal said is now dead. It’d be great if folks could access some other way.
I haven’t seen any new research besides what CRS has collected in our work in coffee communities. There are some new data from my colleagues in East Africa that I will publish here soon. And the survey teams that are in the field right now conducting the Borderlands Coffee Project baseline study are also collecting data on two leading food security indicators: months of adequate household food provisioning (which tells us how many lean months farmers have) and household dietary diversity surveys (which tell us how good a family’s diet is; when repeated over the course of the year, they help us to understand whether dietary intake changes over the course of the year due to changing income flows). We are looking to incorporate these two metrics into all our coffee work moving forward precisely to keep the data on this issue current.
Thanks, too, for the note about the link to Jonathan’s quote. I will see whether I can find another way to share it.