The Blog

view all

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.


  • Thomas Oberthur says:

    Dear Michael, hunger in coffee growing areas, and for that matter in many other tropical agricultural production systems where smallholders are engaged, is an issue that deserves all the attention and help we can possibly muster. You asked the question: “So how did it happen?” I would like to point out that, at the start, it was not the coffee industry that asked questions it had never asked before. It was a team of researchers of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) that ask the right questions, and then opened a dialogue with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR). CIAT researchers were contracted by GMCR to look into the aspects of sustainability of selected supply chains of GMCR, mainly those of organic coffee production systems, in order to develop key performance indicators (KPIs) for the pioneering roaster. The team illustrated the issue of hunger as one of their findings (besides the migration of labor, dependence on remittances, limited access to basic services). This takes nothing away from GMCR, who stepped up and did something about the issue. That is what GMCR deserves all the credit for. The roaster has all my admiration, and that of many others, for taking on one of the most severe and sad aspects in coffee growing regions. With kind regards. Thomas

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Great to hear from you. Thanks for the comment and the clarification. I hope you didn’t feel slighted by the fact that I omitted reference to CIAT or to you as one of the intellectual architects of the groundbreaking research that played such a pivotal role in raising the visibility of this issue. (For what it’s worth, I have given credit where credit is due and cited CIAT in other posts on this issue hereand here and elsehwere.)

      I think your comment only further validates the underlying point I was trying to make with the post, which is related to the quotation famously attributed to Albert Einstein: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” In order to fully understand — and ultimately resolve — the challenges facing coffee-growing communities, the coffee industry needs to avail itself of different perspectives from unfamiliar actors. While it is true that you and Sam and others at CIAT developed the research agenda and framed the issue for GMCR, it did take the first step to broaden the circle of its relationships when it reached out to CIAT to enlist different kinds of thinking.



      • randy wirth says:

        While I recognize that there are some “veterans” in our industry who did not recognize the problem of hunger in the coffee lands especially the lean months before new harvest, it would be a mistake to characterize the specialty coffee industry in general as being so naive. Coffee Kids was founded in approximately 1989, at least when Caffe Ibis joined up at the first SCAA meeting and conference and Bill Fishbein introduced himself. Our own company was founded in 1974 and I had already been aware of the exploitation of coffee farmers for 10 years. Bill’s Coffee Trust is relatively new but the problem goes back to the beginnings of coffee and while it is great that the problem is coming into focus, it is a sad commentary that it has taken so long.

        • Michael Sheridan says:


          Thank you very much for this comment.

          I remember the first time I met Bill, I was driving him around the coffeelands of Guatemala. We had lots of time to talk in the car–where most of the best thinking gets done, in my experience–about the evolution of the sustainability movement. I had the distinct sense then of being an upstart–impatient to move toward new innovations and deeper impact. Bill was wonderful in response–without dampening my spirit or denying the mighty challenges we still face, he reminded me how much progress has been made since the early days of the sustainability movement that you evoke here. The whole scene spoke to me of progress: my impatience was only possible because of the revolution he helped to start decades earlier.

          To be clear, folks like me, who came to coffee a full generation after people like you and Bill, are acutely aware that we are standing on the shoulders of giants! In some cases, we have the privilege to collaborate with them.

          On the particular issue of hunger, I sure didn’t mean to suggest that people weren’t working to address it before Green Mountain drove it to the center of the industry sustainability agenda along with Counter Culture, Farmer Brothers, S&D, SCAA and Starbucks. Only to suggest, as you do, that recognition of the magnitude of the problem and its relationship to the future of the coffee trade only happened after GMCR commissioned a research institute to design and conduct household-level livelihoods surveys. I see elements of that experience–talking to folks usually outside the specialty circle, engaging with farmers in a way that was unusually rigorous, and pressing the issue relentlessly with an audience largely unfamiliar with it–as emblematic of the kinds of risk mapping we should be doing on the margins of the coffee trade.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS