Coffee is the most valuable legally-traded commodity in the world, second only to oil.
It is estimated that 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed each day, worldwide. Ironically, the poorest countries in the world (Guatemala, Ethiopia, Peru and Honduras are some of the top producers of coffee) are growing it, while it’s the richest who are drinking it (the top five coffee consumers are all European countries)… and at prices that get more absurd every day.
It is important to know that the coffee sold at retail is a different economic product from wholesale coffee, traded on the commodity exchange as green beans. And therein lies the rub. The money goes to those that process it. Coffee needs to be hulled, dried, roasted and ground before you can drink it. A big, shiny roaster inside your café means you can charge more than double what the farmer who grew the bean got for it. British charity Oxfam says the price of raw coffee exported from producer countries accounts for less than 7 % of the eventual cost of coffee to Western consumers.
The organic perspective
While certified organic coffee is sold at a premium, lower yields mean that farmers do not always profit in a meaningful way from obtaining certification, so most forgo it completely.
Fair Trade is a good option because the middlemen in coffee are so notorious. Coffee importers provide credit to certified farmers to help them stay out of debt with coffee buyers. But, the certification itself is expensive and there are several brands that practise fair trade without certification.
There are more than a few brands in India that make sustainable, fair trade, organic coffee nowadays. Black Baza is one of them. Founder Arshiya Bose, having done a PhD in the brew, believes a healthy ecosystem creates the best coffee. Black Baza supports their farmers with regular field research on healthy ecosystem indicators: spiders are the pest-control and butterflies, the pollinators. Not only is their coffee organic but the tree cover under which the coffee is grown also has to be 80% natural forest trees.
Organic coffee is mostly always shade-grown because of the large amounts of pesticide and fertilisers required to grow coffee under the sun. Indian coffee competes with large-scale, high-tech coffee estates in Central and South America, which were razed rainforests to begin with. They became so completely stripped of nutrients that in many areas of Brazil, the land could no longer be used for agriculture.
Little wonder that sun-grown coffee is the third most heavily sprayed crop in the world.
A constant struggle
I spoke to Kishore Cariappa of the famed Cariappa Coffee in Kodaikanal (with its own café). Their organic, single-estate, single-origin coffee, is easily one of the best in the country.
Kishore is a stickler for detail. Because the coffee is naturally rain-fed — with no artificial irrigation — the beans all ripen at different times. This means harvesting takes place several times to ensure only ripe berries are picked. It’s time-consuming and labour-intensive, but the only way you can compete with larger coffee companies.
His state-of-the-art roasting and processing machinery was bought to handle 200 acres of coffee. He had dreamt of starting a co-op of the farms in his village — tribal people that grew coffee organically under the shade of forest trees. He had even set up a system by which the farmers would get a monthly salary instead of the once-a-year bumper price that comes with the crop. But all the farmers in his village had already given their coffee out on five-10-year contracts to a clan of local coffee buyers.
“Educated farmers keep track of the prices in London and know what price to demand. But the average farmer doesn’t. They are not exposed to the Internet and their holdings are too small for export. Add to that the fact that they get an income only once a year, so they borrow money from this consortium of buyers and have their coffee locked on contract. This way, the international market prices don’t apply to them any more,” he says.
Kishore decided to go ahead with growing his own coffee and quickly realised that the only way to make money being a coffee farmer was to start his own café. It’s no dream job, though. “Growing sustainable coffee is hard. Organic coffee is so much more labour-intensive; which means expensive. To export, you need 20 tonnes per batch at least to fill a container. Coffee has to be fresh, even the green beans, so you have to send it in batches which is another added cost.”
Direct trade, where coffee roasters directly purchase from farmers, is also a socially sustainable choice. There’s no set standard, and there are no certifications. Roasters directly negotiate prices with the farmers, who typically earn a higher premium for their product. Blue Tokai coffee bags come with a detailed card on the farmer and the farm on which the coffee you ordered, was grown.
We are blessed to be growing some of the finest coffee in the world, and there are now plenty of brands that do it well. Keep it local, nourish our coffee traditions and support those that are making a difference.