Coffee ranks with oil and steel as one of the world’s most intensely traded commodities. Many smaller countries depend on coffee for almost all of their foreign exchange. Millions of families worldwide depend on coffee for their livelihood. The majority are subsistence farmers who tend a few trees along with some chickens and vegetables, and count on the coffee to bring them just enough cash to buy the few tools and staples they need to survive.
As the specialty segment of the coffee industry grows in power and sales figures, it has occurred to many people that niche-marketing of specialty coffee can be a tool to help both coffee growers and coffee-growing countries lift themselves out of poverty.
To put it simply, if coffee sells as a complexly marketed specialty beverage like wine rather than an anonymous, price-driven commodity like branded supermarket coffee, and if some of the premium paid for those complexly marketed specialty coffees actually makes it back to the pockets of subsistence growers rather than staying in the hands of marketers and dealers, then specialty coffee becomes part of a self-regulating, market-oriented solution to the rural poverty that haunts many parts of the tropics.
And, from an ecological point of view, coffee is a crop that is already easier on the environment than many competing crops. Most of the small subsistence farmers I described never have used agricultural chemicals, and grow their coffee mixed in with other crops and often in shade. I recall being in parts of Central America where it is difficult to pick out the coffee trees from the rest of the random tangle of fruit trees and vegetables. Even traditional larger farms with neatly tended shade trees and windbreaks tend to be far more ecologically sound in their agricultural practices than large farms that grow many other cash crops. Consequently, specialty coffee also offers the opportunity for concerned consumers to reward environmentally sound agriculture and discourage destructive practices.
In the very broadest sense, every time you buy a coffee on the basis of origin from a specialty vendor rather than on the basis of price from a supermarket you are supporting a market-based solution to tropical poverty and environmental degradation. In fact, you are helping everyone. You are helping yourself to better coffee and a more expressive choice of coffee; you are helping a college-student clerk work at something slightly more interesting than taking orders at a fast food outlet; you are helping roasters, dealers, and exporters lead more interesting lives based more on shared passion than on pure number crunching; and you are recognizing and rewarding the hard work of mill operators and growers.
All of this for a few cents more per cup.
However, coffee buyers can be even more specific in their support of subsistence growers and the environment. They can choose from a growing array of what, for lack of a better term, will be called “cause coffees.”