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373. Coffee in the Age of Exploration

2013-11-25 Comments Off on 373. Coffee in the Age of Exploration

Ten years ago, almost no one in coffee was talking about hunger in the coffeelands.  Now it seems almost everyone is.  How did the issue of food security in coffee communities move from the margins to the mainstream of the industry’s sustainability agenda in just a few short years?  The answer is both important and timely if we are to fix what’s broken in the coffee business.

So how did it happen?

It happened because the coffee industry went places it had never gone and asked questions it had never asked before.  More precisely, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters did.  It had the curiosity to ask the questions.  The courage to publish the answers.  The conviction to put those answers in front of industry leaders again and again until we could no longer ignore the reality of hunger in the coffeelands.  And the commitment to act—along with others in the industry committed to change—to address the issue, in part because it is the right thing to do, in part because it poses a threat to the coffee business.

Why is this story important?  Because it suggests that the industry’s sustainability agenda is not immune to appeals that tug on our emotions when they are based on evidence.  The agenda can evolve along with our understanding of the realities of life at origin.

Why is this story timely?  Because there is a growing sense that the coffee business is broken.  If it is going to be fixed in any lasting way, we need to have a deeper understanding of what we are up against.  That means understanding the current challenges better than we do now and improving the ways we address them.  And it may also mean surveying the landscape again to see whether there are things happening in the coffee chain that do not appear on the industry’s sustainability agenda but do pose threats to the coffee chain.

In 2003, coffee industry veterans didn’t know that the people who grow our coffee experience annual lean seasons that are measured in months.  In 2013, companies that compete in the marketplace are working collaboratively at origin to address the issue.  What will be the burning sustainability issues in 2023 that no one is talking about today?

During the Age of Exploration, explorers and mapmakers made forays to the frontiers to survey uncharted territories and report back to their patrons.  The waters they sailed through were marked on earlier maps by dragons, and the mountain passes with skulls and crossbones.  The leaders who put hunger on the industry’s sustainability agenda are their modern-day coffee equivalents and heirs to their tradition.  We may need another generation of explorers to map the risks facing the coffee enterprise today.

The good news is that as of this writing coffee roasters, coffee traders, coffee certifiers, coffee associations—and yes, NGOs like CRS—are all busy chasing supply chain risks into unfamiliar territory.  If we identify new sources of risk or help shed new light on old ones, we can redraw the industry’s risk map and its sustainability agenda in ways that may help it navigate these troubled waters.