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What We Can Learn From a Cup of Coffee

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Coffee is among the most traded commodities in the world. Only crude oil is traded on world markets more than coffee. Despite the fact that the US has a Starbucks on almost every corner, we are not the biggest coffee drinkers in the world. In fact, we don’t even make the top 10 or top 20.  U.S. per capita coffee consumption is 4.2kg, well behind the Finland at 12kg. Even our neighbors to the north drink more joe than we do at 6.5kg for the average Canadian. There has been a bit of a revolution taking place in the coffee business over the past few years, one that may have some lessons for us in production agriculture.

First cultivated in Ethiopia, coffee has become a crop that has shaped world history, culture, economies, and politics. For much of its history, coffee was consumed in coffee houses; but, with the advent of the industrial revolution, coffee production, packaging, and marketing became a true commodity. For most of us today, we can remember coffee coming in a can, and we baby boomers can remember it being brewed on a percolator on the stove. It had brand names, was of questionable quality and origin, and frankly did not taste all that good. While today you can still find cans of Folgers and Maxell House on store shelves, the vast majority of the coffee aisle is now taken up by specialty coffees. The coffee industry has moved — and continues to move — from a commodity business to a specialty business, based on consumer demands and using advance in technology to meet those demands.

Coffee drinkers today want to know where their coffee comes from and how it was grown. Sound familiar? The industry has responded by labeling coffee based on region. Each region of the world has coffee that tastes differently because of the climate, soil, altitude, processing, and the kind of trees they use. In addition, you can find coffee labeled with Organic, Fair Trade, Bird Friendly, sustainable, and non-GMO.

All of these labels are NOT MANDATORY. They are voluntarily placed there by the coffee roasters who wants to distinguish their products from others in the market. In addition, there are no international standards for many of these labels. Even the location label is somewhat suspect since a country that does not have a good reputation for producing quality coffee can ship some beans across the border to their neighbor who does.

The reality is that only larger coffee plantations can afford the 3 year, waiting period and the lower yields of a certified organic designation. Smaller farmers, who often produce higher quality coffee, do not opt for an organic label. Likewise, with fair trade which is a designation bestowed by an international monitoring organization that charges a hefty fee for such a designation. These deals are typically done with coffee co-ops and rarely individual farmers.  If you want to buy your coffee from a coffee farmer and pay him a fair price, you can go to the internet and, with a few clicks, make it happen.

In the coffee world, commodity coffee exists alongside specialty coffees. Commodity coffee is cheap, specialty coffee tastes better, and consumers get to make the choice.  The two sides are not out to try to put the other out of business. This is unlike much of the food industry where the organic, non-GMO, vegetarian, sectors are trying to put the rest of food production out of business by fostering negative social media campaigns and needless government regulations.

For example, the organic industry held a fundraiser for Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow, the Senate’s leading Democrat on agriculture issues — just days before the Senate took up the GMO-labeling bill with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line for U.S. food companies.  Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb, Stonyfield Farm Chairman Gary Hirshberg, Organic Valley CEO George Siemon, and Laura Batcha, head of the Organic Trade Association, all turned out to support the Senator who is insisting on mandatory labels on products that contain any GMO technology.

The coffee industry is proof that commodity production and specialty production can coexist and prosper. That is something the activists on both sides of the food fight should learn.

By Gary Truitt