It's 4 a.m. on a quiet but warmer than usual December morning. Time for Manuel to wake up and pick up where he left off the night before, picking this year's coffee harvest in his small farm in western El Salvador.
Manuel, is a man of habit. Right after heating up the stove to fix a cup of coffee for himself and waking up his oldest daughter Gracia, he goes to a small table right by his bed to get that worn out L.A. Dodgers hat his brother Jorge sent him many years ago, just one week after he made it to the States after a long trip with both their parents, fleeing from a civil war nightmare more than pursuing the American Dream.
Not having to worry about skipping school (As the school calendar has been “conveniently” set up for years in the country so that vacations match harvest season), Gracia will join Manuel in hand-picking the coffee beans that will be brought later that day to the coffee mills. A tragedy, knowing Manuel has never tried the fruit of his own hard work and most likely will never know what a cup of coffee out of his farm tastes like, as his beans will get mixed up with the ones from other farms very early in the process.
The harvest will be smaller than the year before, which was in turn smaller than the year prior. For Manuel the trend is confirmed and he is already thinking about diversifying to other crops that are more apt to warmer temperatures. If the trend continues like this, in two years, coffee will not bring enough income for him to repay his loans and save his farm.
3324 Km away, at the heart of New York City, John, a hot-shot trader who's now on a quest to quit caffeine and sugar, is getting ready to hit the markets. Actually, he may have traded Manuel's whole year's work in the past at some point in a jiffy and he may even do it again at some point. John won't know or care since these are just numbers for him. And how could he? He trades oil, gold, silver and whatever else he can profit from to be able to pay for that voracious lifestyle that made him its prisoner four years ago. A tragedy, knowing that John probably made a killing thanks to Manuel's work, unlike Manuel who was forced to sell at whatever price the market dictated months ago, pressured to repay his loans and not worry about losing his farm this year at least. It's done deal.
Meanwhile, 6183 Km away from New York, in a small bar in Barcelona, some of Manuel's coffee from last year's harvest was used to prepare a café con leche. Being such a big fan of Spanish football, knowing some of his coffee made it to the land of his favorite team would have made Manuel very happy.
The Problems Beneath
Millions of us love a good cup of coffee. Heck, some of us aren't even functional human beings before our first cup in the morning. But are we taking it for granted? What's our level of awareness of the people and the process involved in helping us kick-start our days every day?
My story above, although it is fictional, it is closer to reality than I would like. The many problems highlighted in these few paragraphs are as serious as they impact 100 million coffee farmers worldwide, many of them growing their coffee in more adverse conditions season after season.
Climate change is a severe threat to coffee plantations worldwide as it affects both quantity and quality of their production. Rising temperatures around the globe decrease the extension of land that is apt for the production of coffee, in addition to the higher risk of fungal disease as a result of warmer temperatures.
In an article published by the TIME Magazine
(1), Howard Schultz, former CEO and Chairman of Starbucks warns how climate change ranks high among the biggest threats against the aromatic beverage.
“Make no mistake. Climate change is going to play a bigger role in affecting the quality and integrity of coffee. — Howard Schultz
An Unbalanced Value Chain
Coffee, as one of the most widely consumed beverages around the globe, is also one of the most important traded commodities.
Historically, however, the coffee value chain has been unbalanced, as less than 10% of the $200 billion industry value remains in producing countries.
The long and opaque value chain proves quite profitable for middlemen who may not even care about the work behind growing high quality coffee, unlike 100 million coffee farmers worldwide who do most of the work and get the smallest slice of the pie of a multi-billion dollar industry.
As a result of an unbalanced value chain, small coffee farmers, who usually earn only about 7-10% of the supermarket price of their coffee
(2), find themselves often in the need to pull their children from school to help them work in the coffee plantations.
There is not a lot of room to judge here, as we are talking about families that are in survival mode. Education for them is a luxury they cannot afford, even if it is for free in the public school systems. Change needs to come from us the consumers, by supporting businesses that engage in direct trade with producers or by supporting initiatives like FairTrade, easily by looking for this certification mark:
As in most pressing global issues, our individual actions, as they scale can have significant positive impact in making things better for those suffering the consequences of a broken system. Know that with something as simple as paying attention to which coffee you pick from the shelf in the supermarket, you can help a kid stay in school or a hard-working farmer get a fair compensation for their hard work.
Header Photo by Rodrigo Flores on Unsplash