Last week I made the not-so-bold prediction that 2011 will be The Year of the GCQRI. Today I consider whether that is an entirely good thing.
I should note up front that all my information on GCQRI is second-hand. Given that I am not on anyone’s short list of “thought-leaders in the specialty coffee industry,” I have not been invited to participate directly in the process. Like most people, I have had to rely on the documents that the good folks at GCQRI have published on the initiative’s website or blog, the excellent work of James Hoffman and Tom Owen (who live-blogged the proceedings of the October GCQRI meetings), and scraps of info and innuendo from friends and colleagues on the inside.
Based on info from those sources, it seems to me that the GCQRI is a worthy initiative that is long overdue, with the potential for enormous return on its R&D investment. It also seems to me that there is a glaring absence in the process and design of the initiative that could put the whole thing in jeopardy: farmers. I am not referring here merely to the concept of “farmer voice” (so often cited with reverence in industry and so rarely heeded), but something more: building into the GCQRI an understanding of household-level decision-making in the coffeelands.
The folks behind the GCQRI describe it as an “industry-led” initiative. Tom Owen explained in his coverage of the event why this has to be the case:
this Initiative is funded to research coffee quality as defined by the buyers…so the “primary stakeholders” are the ones who should be the first to define the agenda. The reason is, we are the ones who determine “quality” and we are the ones who pay for it. At the risk of sounding imperialistic, the agenda has to be set by us. (bold mine)
I do not take issue with this approach. I would suggest, however, that if this approach is not paired with an understanding of the economic pressures that smallholder farmers face at origin, the whole GCQRI enterprise could be at risk of failure. Tom, who spends more time at origin than most, clearly understands this dynamic. Again, from his coverage of the event:
We are already busting the farmer’s bank by asking them to separate tiny amounts of their best coffee, meticulously prepared, even with a price premium, when there is always a large bulk of coffee that falls into a lower quality level that we can’t buy. The formula barely works now, and won’t in the future.
I know there are others involved in the GCQRI process who share Tom’s sensitivity to the lived realities of smallholder farmers. But the understanding of a few roasters will not be sufficient — this understanding needs to be engineered into the DNA of the GCQRI process.
Already, roasters are seeing that the premiums they pay are often not enough of an incentive to get farmers to make the additional investments necessary to meet the highest standards of quality. With NY “C” prices high and continuing to rise, this problem will only get worse. In the end, the technologies GCQRI identifies as quality-critical must make economic sense for farmers in their local contexts. Invariably, their adoption will imply additional costs for farmers. If the industry that is leading the GCQRI does not pay premiums that compensate farmers for these costs and facilitate the co-investment necessary to reduce farmer risk, even the technologies that most reliably improve quality may not be adopted.