Friday, December 24, 2010

Micro Lots and The Perils of Buying Local

An article from the Economist has got me thinking about the price we pay for coffee and other produce.  I've read much spilled ink on the subject of sustainable coffee, but reading the Economist's report on the sorrows of undocumented farm workers provoked some new thinking on coffee and food in general.

1.  Indie coffee businesses have fallen in love with the micro lot.  Myself included, we are proud of knowing what hillside our coffee comes from, and the name of the farmer who cultivated it.  The problem is that most coffee farmers, even many of those attempting to grow specialty coffee, never get the chance to produce a micro lot.  Instead, they must work with large companies or sell to traders on the C market.  

Although micro lot coffee remains a tiny percentage of the overall coffee market, I see opportunities for disproportionate impact amongst the world's coffee farmers.  With an up-market piece of the pie, I'm hopeful that we will leverage our passion for better coffee to try new and innovative sustainability solutions that larger companies can learn from.  

What if we expanded our coffee quest to previously commoditized producing regions? What if we tried, documented and reported on our experiences so that others could learn from us?  What new ideas and new best practices are already out there that we can learn about and try in a new place?  Daniel Humphrey's work with the USDA on field quality in Puerto Rico and the Global Coffee Quality Research Institute's study of cup quality in Rwanda are both outstanding examples of what we could contribute to coffee farmers everywhere.

2. We've done a good job educating consumers on the importance of green and fair growing practices at origin.  The story of the Vegas family in the Economist, however, reminds me that the food industry as a whole has brushed the social costs of cheap food under the rug.  Why can't the "fair" branding successfully applied to coffee over the last two decades be applied to other food products too?  

Although we're starting to see progress with chocolate, organics, and locally-grown produce, there's a long way to go.  Organic or not, most produce in America is still harvested by undocumented migrants who work hard for wages that are higher than they could earn elsewhere, but lower than most of us would take.  Meanwhile, most tropically-grown commodities remain just that, commodities whose cultivation is often rife with the worst sort of labor abuses.

Recognizing the true costs of the current system doesn't make solutions apparent.  Forcibly returning millions of undocumented workers, if it could be done, would simply push millions of families back to lives of even less opportunity in their home countries.  And it's far from clear if consumers would respond to a more aggressive fair-trade strategy aimed at raising prices on everything from bananas to sugar.

I've touted buying local as a constructive and prophetic alternative to the status quo.  But even local isn't guilt-free by itself.  If everyone in the country bought from the farm next door, farmers in places like Oaxaca would be even less able to afford essential health care or education for their children, let alone dreams of a future in a place with more opportunities.  Put another way, purchasing a Washington carrot keeps money out of the hands of farmers in developing countries that depend on that agricultural income from our food system.

None of this means local farms and sustainable growing practices aren't an excellent solution.  I'm more aware of the true costs of my food, though, and I'm wondering if my support for local and sustainable agriculture needs to be supplemented by an outpouring of compassion and creative thinking on behalf of those who would lose their jobs if my dreams become reality.  

We've already seen a good example of constructive work on the challenges that come with improving quality in our own industry as we've committed ourselves to sustaining the farmers whose produce we value.  Although we as an industry wouldn't be directly involved, I can't help but wonder what a similar commitment would look like in bananas, chocolate or spinach.

All in all, a commitment to local food seems to be a more serious thing than I thought, and I'm driven to my knees for those trying their best to thrive within a warped food system.  Uncomfortable thoughts, indeed, but appropriate for Christmas.

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