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155. Symposium hunger commentary

I had the enormous privilege last week of providing some brief commentary at the SCAA‘s annual Symposium following the world premiere of the After the Harvest documentary, which focuses on the issue of seasonal hunger in the coffeelands.  When Hal Hamilton of Sustainable Food Lab gave the keynote to open Symposium, he encouraged participants to “really listen to people who experience the world differently from you.”  The film offered perspectives on the coffee chain from smallholder farmers that were very different indeed from those of most of the people gathered in the room — a Who’s Who of specialty coffee in the United States, Europe and Japan.  I am positioned somewhere in between, near the crossroads of coffee and development, living at origin and working directly with smallholder farmer organizations but also in touch with the evolving specialty market.  So I tried to offer a perspective that might begin to bridge the gap between the two worlds I straddle.  Here are the four ideas I shared.

1.  Hunger is a part of specialty coffee business models.

As long as 2 of every 3 farmers growing coffee are smallholders who are, almost by definition, vulnerable, the issue of hunger will be part of the specialty coffee trade.  More specifically, the strategies that smallholder farmers adopt to cope with acute financial distress put downward pressure on the quality and quantity of coffee that smallholder farmers bring to market.

2.  Hunger is a part of specialty coffee business models (even when NY “C” hits $3).

While the high market this year may have felt like a tidal wave to buyers, it may have made little more than a splash at the household level in Central America.  For a roaster or importer buying many thousands (or millions) of pounds of coffee, paying $1 more per pound adds up pretty quickly.  But at origin, where the average family in our CAFE Livelihoods project produces 700 pounds of coffee per hectare and may have just one hectare planted with coffee, the story is different.  That $700 differential in this “bonanza” market evaporates pretty quickly when you consider all the basic needs of a family of 5 or 6 people — food, medicine, education, transportation, etc.  That is to say nothing of all the urgent investments that were put off in previous years when the market was not so favorable: home repairs, farm renovation, post-harvest infrastructure, etc.  While a really bad year is enough to knock a farmer into a cycle of debt and increasing poverty, a really good year isn’t necessarily enough to lift that farmer out of poverty.

3. More of the same approaches to sustainability are not likely to make a big impact.

One of the big takeaways from the film and the research that fueled it is that the families experiencing chronic seasonal hunger are selling certified coffees.  Investing more in mainstream sustainability approaches like certifications is critically important to reduce market risk for cooperatives, but this approach alone will not likely change the hunger equation in any fundamental way.

4.  “Soft” investments can generate “hard” returns.

Finally, I shared this story of how “soft” investments to help farmers address the sources of hunger generated “hard” returns and created competitive advantage in a tight market for quality coffee.

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