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Farmworkers and Policy: New Global Coffee Frontiers

In May, The Guardian published this article declaring “smallholder farmers are the new global food frontier.”

The author is Hugh Locke, president and co-founder of a Haitian non-profit called Smallholder Farmers Alliance.  He reminds readers that smallholders produce 70 percent of the world’s food, argues that we are not positioning them for success and issues a series of recommendations to shore up smallholder farming systems.  He suggests that the food and beverage industry “is now in a leadership role it did not ask for,” thrust into the vanguard of a food and farming revolution by its reliance on smallholder farmers.

Locke is right about a lot of things.  Our food systems are dependent on smallholder farmers, and those farmers are vulnerable.  Expanding access to quality inputs, agronomic and financial services and markets are all key ingredients in all the recipes for making our food systems more resilient.  And the seven steps in his call to action to make smallholder farming systems more resilient do represent a worthy starting point.

Only, smallholders are not a new frontier.  At least, not in specialty coffee.

Smallholders have been the cornerstone of more than 20 years of market-based innovation to make the coffee trade more equitable, inclusive and sustainable.  Three other articles, all published in the past week, may help focus the attention of specialty coffee on what I consider to be new global food coffee frontiers: farmworkers and policy.


  • The Myth of the Ethical Shopper.
    Of the three, the one I found most resonant was a piece on Huffington Post by Michael Hobbes titled, “The Myth of the Ethical Shopper.”  The article’s tagline is an able synthesis of its key message: “We’re still trying to eliminate sweatshops and child labor by buying right.  But that’s not how the world works in 2015.”  Many elements of this article resonated with me based on my experience in coffee, but its most important contributions to the sustainability discussion in specialty coffee may be these: there are limits on what even the best consumer awareness and consumer choice campaigns can achieve on their own; these constraints are structural; market-based approaches will be most effective in changing those structures when they are harmonized with policies that align financial, social and environmental incentives.


  • The Food Sector Braces Itself for Crackdown on Modern-Day Slavery
    This article in The Guardian explores the implications for the food sector of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, which takes effect in October.  The author is Jessica Burt, a food lawyer.  She argues that the food sector, where “profit margins are increasingly squeezed and supply chains criss-cross the globe, is particularly at risk.” She explores the unique challenges of improving supply chain transparency and traceability in agricultural supply chains that originate in countries whose labor protections are lax.  And she specifically cites concerns about coffee supply chains in South America.  This is a powerful and timely testament to the central point raised by Hobbes: policy is an essential tool in fighting the worst forms of labor abuse.


  • Defining “Employee” in the Gig Economy
    This editorial in the most recent Sunday edition of The New York Times explores the way the legal construct of “employee”–and the obligations of employers–has evolved in an economic age characterized by relentless and deliberate separation of brands from the farms and firms that grow and make the stuff they sell.  The Times editors make no specific mention of coffee and scant mention of agriculture–just a lone reference to “agricultural businesses.”  But they provide a helpful reminder that the economic logic that has blurred the line between employee and contractor applies just as much in the agriculture sector as it does in every other sector of the economy.  And that the work of policy–making, interpreting, implementing and enforcing it–will go a long way to shaping what the relationship bewteen workers and employees looks like in the future.


So, what?  What insight do these articles provide for efforts to make the coffee trade–and our food systems more broadly–more equitable, inclusive and sustainable?  For me, they help bring into clearer resolution three ideas that we have been exploring here over many months:


  • It seems wishful to think that we can shop our way to smallholder resilience and farmworker empowerment.  Can the same market mechanisms that have driven the “flexibilization” of the labor force and increased the precariousness of labor be enlisted to create meaningful improvements in conditions for workers?


  • The rules of the game by which the market must play are made by policymakers,  intepreted by judges and enforced by States.  To the extent that we focus our sustainability efforts on the market we may be missing opportunities to contribute to deeper impacts through changes in policy.


  • The relative lack of attention paid to farmworker issues in specialty coffee seems increasingly out-of-step with the measures being taken by progressive governments around the world–from England to California to Brazil–to protect workers from the worst forms of labor abuse.


In closing, I should say that agree with one other important point Locke raises in his article: food and beverage companies are leading a revolution to transform broken food and farming systems, whether they like it or not.  The specialty coffee community can position itself at the vanguard of that revolution if it continues its efforts to drive deeper impact in smallholder farming systems while focusing attention on farmworkers, the most vulnerable actors in the industry’s supply chain and a new frontier of specialty coffee.

 —Michael Sheridan


  • P Baker says:

    Thanks Michael, I’d missed these pieces (the link to the NYT piece doesn’t work for me).

    Try reading Shopping our Way to Safety by A. Szasz.

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thanks for the recommendation–I will be sure to look it up.

      And try the link again–I think I have it right now.


  • Luis Samper says:

    Thanks Michael. Another big topic on small sized farming is how to help small farm owners to cope and adapt to climate change and climate variability, particularly for perennial crops such as coffee. How are we going to do something meaningful with scale? Some thoughts on this on:


  • Thanks for this informative and thoughtful piece, Michael. I often wonder how we can engage and influence trade policy every time I hear that the U.S. is negotiating another free trade deal. Please keep us informed of access points — or if/when/ever CRS or other small-farmer advocates start to lobby Washington. We want to help!

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Good to hear from you and thanks for the kind words on this post. We will certainly reach out to when the time comes to engage on trade issues related to the coffee sector. Meantime, I would say that there are other policy issues beyond trade agreements to consider. I had the privilege of participating in Re:co Symposium in Gothenburg, Sweden, in June and found myself reflecting on this issue of policy and coffee. I was discussing with some colleagues from the U.S. specialty community the fact that Europe’s specialty industry doesn’t seem to have the same professionalization of the sustainability function that a growing number of U.S. roasters and importers do. In the U.S., I have worked closely with sustainability directors at Starbucks, Counter Culture, Farmer Brothers, Volcafe, S&D Coffee, etc. I don’t see their counterparts in Europe. Why? I think part of the answer is policy. European governments have progressive policies governing coffee procurement for the public sector, strong protections for workers and the environment and are engaged with voluntary sustainability standards on ways to improve impact measurement around these initiatives. What has been required through legislation and executive policy in many parts of Europe has been left to the private sector in the United States. As a result, companies in the United States are left to develop their own approaches to sustainability. Or not. I don’t see these issues as priorities in the United States, exactly, or things we would advocate on in Washington, but do think it is an interesting contrast to the hands-off approach in the U.S. market.


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