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The coffee explosion

Demand for coffee can create an ecological and economic rift with poorer nations
Coffee Bean Picture from MyGreenPod Sustainable News

The explosion in worldwide coffee consumption in the past two decades hasn’t benefited farmers of coffee beans in poorer nations along the equator, according to a new study.

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Coffee and exploitation

A University of Kansas (KU) researcher studying trade and globalisation has found that the shift to ‘technified’ coffee production in the 1970s and 1980s created harsher economic and ecological consequences for heavy coffee-producing nations, such as Honduras, Colombia, Guatemala, Brazil, Vietnam and Ethiopia.

‘Historically, coffee has been exploited by the west in various ways, because it’s consumed in rich countries and grown in poor ones.’

Alexander Myers, a KU doctoral candidate in sociology

Myers will present his study, Trading in Crisis: Coffee, Ecological Rift, and Ecologically Unequal Exchange, at the 110th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA).

‘Technified’ coffee

The paper examines how the shift to technified coffee for mass production has hurt peasant farmers and had a major ecological influence on coffee-producing countries, especially with respect to the amount of water required for the crops.

Myers said the shift to technified coffee production changed the process to look more like traditional large wheat or soybean farms in the United States, and doesn’t allow coffee plants to grow in smaller shaded areas.

The latter process used much less water and allowed farmers to diversify their crops and use their land to plant other crops as well. Technified production requires farmers to grow coffee exclusively.

Impact on economies

Major drops in commodity prices for coffee beans – to around $0.50 per pound in 2001 – nearly wiped out the economies of some coffee-producing nations.

‘What we do matters. The choices that we make, the products that we buy have an impact on somebody.

‘Sometimes it’s a good impact. Sometimes it’s negligible or negative. But they do have impacts, so just trying to keep that in mind is important, especially in researching what is behind these consumption choices.’

Alexander Myers, a KU doctoral candidate in sociology

140l of water per cup

The technification of coffee production also requires a new type of coffee bean to grow effectively, and requires much more water to produce. Some ecological researchers have estimated the average cup of coffee now requires 140 litres of water to produce.

The fair trade movement has helped to offset both the economic and ecological changes, especially for poorer farmers in developing countries. Myers said such movements could help raise awareness especially among coffee drinkers in Western nations.

Visit the Fairtrade Foundation for more information about Fairtrade coffee and where to find it.

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