Sustainability: Specialty Coffee and the Exodus

In July of 2007 the United Nations Population Fund reported that for the first time in history, more than half of humankind was living in towns and cities, no longer in rural areas. This gave credence to the Fund’s 1996 prediction that “the growth of cities will be the single largest influence on development in the 21st century.” By 2030 the world’s urban population is expected to grow to 4.9 billion, while the rural areas will actually see a decrease of about 28 million during this same period.
What is causing this rapid growth of urban areas? In two words, it is the “perceived opportunity” for a better life. Economic, educational, social, and health advances and opportunities are centered in urban areas. This is a powerful draw to marginalized rural populations around the world, and it has created a growing tide of migrants moving away from rural lands. Coffee communities are hardly immune to this powerful trend.
The long term sustainability of our industry faces many threats, including climate change, increasing global demand, decreasing production and resulting labor shortages, and the countless challenges of poverty and hunger. Yet, the most ominous threat to our own sustainability may be our inability to see and act upon what is right in front of us..
As an industry, we remain focused on high quality coffee from tree to cup. Our focus on quality continues to result in a distinctive, superior taste in the cup. Yet as we look ahead, is this traditional focus enough to sustain our industry?
If your coffee travels are like mine, you spend many months a year meeting with small-scale farmers and their families in very rural, isolated parts of our planet. Yet even in these areas it is hard to miss young people using cell phones to connect with friends in nearby villages or distant cities. It is also hard to miss the proliferation of Internet cafes that have sprung up not far from the shade of the coffee parcels. Some of these cafes may be a bus ride away, yet young people are drawn to them like bees to honey. Why? These cafes provide a link to a modern, urban world with a perceived access to secondary school education, adequate health services, clean water, adequate shelter, and nutritious food. The lack of access to these basics gives young people little reason to stay in coffee communities growing coffee. The virtual genie has left the bottle, and the exodus from coffee communities to urban centers and beyond, that jumped into high gear a decade ago when coffee prices tumbled to historic lows, has taken a different turn and will continue to accelerate and threaten the long-term sustainability of our industry.
While we have to protect specialty coffee against potential threats, including the impacts of climate change, and encourage the development of new high quality “climate-tolerant” varieties, we cannot ignore the megatrend in which we find ourselves: accelerating global urbanization. As an industry, if we succeed in developing new hybrids that will maintain the quantity and quality of specialty coffee demanded by the market, yet fail to help coffee growing families address their basic needs and give young people sufficient reason to stay in their coffee-growing communities, we may find ourselves asking each other, “Who is left to grow and harvest this new generation of specialty coffee?”
Globally, most of the major challenges to quality of life in coffee communities are simply too large for any individual company to resolve alone. Further, most companies do not have the expertise internally, or the “boots on the ground” to help foster changes at the community level. Challenges like food insecurity, global warming, clean water, and access to education demand and deserve a coordinated, thoughtful response that makes the most effective and efficient use of the limited resources we have available as an industry. The first step can be to identify where our coffees originate as close to the community level as possible, followed by identifying NGO’s who are working in these communities. NGO’s like Save the Children, Heifer International, Catholic Relief Services, Coffee Kids and Mercy Corps are examples of organizations working in coffee growing areas around the world. Some in our industry are just starting to talk about collaborating to address these issues. Industry collaboration is the key to the long-term success and sustainability of our partners in coffee growing communities around the world, and ultimately of our own businesses.
Rick Peyser is Director of Social Advocacy and Supply Chain Community Outreach for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters where he has worked for over 24 years. He is a past President of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, the world’s largest coffee trade association, and served six years on the Board of Directors of the Fair Trade Labeling Organizations International (FLO) which sets the standards for Fair Trade that benefit over 1,500,000 small-scale farmers around the world. Currently Rick serves on the Coffee Kids Board of Directors, the Food For Farmers Board of Directors, and the Board of Directors of Fundacion Ixil which is working to improve the quality of life in Ixil coffee communities in El Quiche, Guatemala.

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