This is the last installment of our three part "what and why" series. I could write a book about the issues in the coffee industry that I've discovered since I started working directly with producers. I'm not going to. I'm just going to start off by saying that the information we receive as roasters (I used to be one too) and consumers, on this side of the supply chain, is often as far from the truth as the north pole is from the south pole.
Let's talk quickly about certifications. In theory they should help farmers, but in practice I haven't seen it. Even Organic certifications are often controlled and "sold" by large co-ops like assets. I've personally seen cases where co-ops have gone out and bought coffee from any farmer with coffee, organic or not, to fill orders. I've seen farmers that were too small to qualify for certification be forced to sell out cheaply to their local co-op because a buyer required the Organic cert versus being able to sell direct to the buyer. And please don't get me started on all the "fair-trade" certification scams out there in coffee. The Coffee Co-Mission has no desire to be involved in any sort of "fair-trade" labeling program. It would reduce the amount of money we can pay direct to farmers. Certifications make things easy for consumers, but they haven't delivered increased security to smallholder farmers or farm workers, and they haven't delivered real solutions to the problems the industry has been facing. These are my own personal opinions that have been formed from my interactions directly with farmers and other producers around the world.
I also want to talk briefly about direct trade. More and more small specialty coffee importers (we're small too right now so that’s not a knock) are going direct to origin, and of course more roasters are too. There's good reason for this and the industry has nobody to blame but itself. Direct trade has produced its fair share of success stories, but the results have not been all positive. Often only a small percentage of coffee, usually the best quality, is being sold direct. This leaves farmers with large quantities of their harvests left over, with all the best coffee gone, so what remains can be hard to sell. This situation varies a lot depending on the origin.
The direct trade trend has also caused its fair share of chaos. We believe the answer to some of the coffee farmers' problems can be solved through more direct trade, but like anything else, it has to be done wisely with a healthy dose of unselfishness. Direct trade is not a realistic option for most of the world's farmers and roasters. It's just too complicated, capital intensive, and burdensome. It helps to have companies like The Coffee Co-Mission managing the trade between larger groups of small farmers and roasters. If the direct trade trend is going to deliver any real solutions to problems in the industry, it will have to develop a more holistic approach to its interactions with farmers.
The industry talks a lot about the risks to coffee supply from climate change, plant pests, and diseases. In my mind this narrative is pushed to perpetuate the colonialist business model that has dominated the global coffee trade for centuries. This business model promotes the desire for quantity over quality; more coffee at cheap prices. What's their answer? An ever-evolving supply of hybrids and now even GMO coffee. The elephant in the room is that coffee farmers have no motivation to farm coffee for a loss. Many farmers gave up best-practices long ago and many are close to giving up coffee altogether. The other issue I have seen in my own personal experiences is that farmers everywhere lack access to high quality, effective, farming inputs.
In my mind these are the two biggest risks to the coffee industry: no motivation for farmers from low crop values and no access to quality farming inputs. From what I have learned from working direct with farmers around the world, these are the problems we should be solving.
The solution to the first problem is simple. Maybe not easy, but simple. Pay farmers more money. We do this by distributing the value coffee already has today in a more equitable way for the farmers. You can learn more about the specifics of how we do that in part two of this series.
To solve the second problem I created Blue Marble Chemical. Blue Marble Chemical manufactures and distributes highly effective organic fertilizers and pest control products. We act as the importer and distributor at origin and we bring our products in and sell them direct to farmers to ensure they get an affordable price and don’t have to worry about counterfeit products. We began working in East Africa and from there we'll work to help farmers across Africa, Central and South America, and parts of Asia. So far our products have outperformed every other conventional and organic products available. We may not make as much money as other companies, but we will provide real solutions.
The coffee industry is facing real challenges, not the least of which is its own greed.
- Daniel Ehrlich, Founder