International Coffee Day – Connecting the Dots between Unchecked Capitalism, the Climate Crisis and Forced Migration

October 1st is marked as International Coffee Day around the globe. This year has been a rough one for many of the 25 million small-scale farmers who grow coffee around the world. Talk of a crisis in coffee is growing, not just in the industry, but on the headlines of major papers as well.

Last year at this time, we reflected on the root causes of this crisis: Volatile markets, corporate consolidation, the ways that the coffee industry itself is rooted in the structures of colonialism and capitalism, designed to extract and exploit small-scale, often indigenous, farmers for maximum profit. The ongoing climate crisis means that these farmers who are already getting squeezed by low prices and marginalized by racism and capitalism are getting squeezed even harder. That much remains the same since last year. Since last year, we have also seen a swell of stories tying these pressures to the factors pushing farmers off their land and out of their homes in Guatemala and Honduras, stories that get summed up in U.S. headlines as the migrant crisis.

The Coffee Crisis and the Climate Crisis are Linked

This year, small-scale coffee farmers issued a clear statement: “We cannot live on $0.90 per pound,” referring to the current commodity market price for coffee.  As farmers across Latin America are faced with the choice to abandon their coffee fields or starve, the coffee industry has issued a preliminary look at what a fair income might be. A recently released white paper studying coffee farmers in Colombia puts the price at $2.38 per pound—not for organic coffee, nor for specialty grade coffee, but for basic commodity-grade coffee (the stuff that lands in a Folgers’ can). The bottom line is that companies need to pay farmers more.

The white paper goes on to rank challenges and solutions from most impactful to least. One of the greatest obstacles facing paying farmers a living income? “Focusing too much on (short term) maximizing shareholder value.” While the authors of an industry white paper may phrase it more delicately, the message is clear: one of the greatest obstacles to fair livelihoods for farmers is corporate greed and an outsized focus on their profits.

The climate crisis has taken a front page spot in the news over the past few months. The Amazon rainforest and forests around the globe are burning. Climate strikers have filled the streets around the world, calling for action and for those in power to consider the next generations. Yet the climate crisis is happening now for far too many people. Coffee farming families are just one example of the ways that climate change hits communities of color first and worst. Writing this as the UN Climate Summit goes on, the words of Greta Thunberg come to mind, connecting the “fairy tales of eternal economic growth” with climate catastrophe. Climate activists, researchers, and small-scale coffee farmers agree: business as usual cannot continue.

Take Action for International Coffee Day

This International Coffee Day, it’s time to take action to support fair livelihoods for coffee farmers—and a future not just for our morning cup but for humanity. There are three actions you can take right now:

Back Fair Incomes for Coffee Farmers

Each year, people spend $200 billion dollars on coffee. Just 6% of that makes it back to coffee farmers. Too many corporate solutions miss the mark when they suggest that farmers can work their way out of this structural crisis by growing more coffee or growing it more efficiently. Solutions like those benefit buyers but fail to fix the fundamentals of a system that is stacked against farmers. More investment in infrastructure is good, income diversification is vital, and so are other long-term initiatives to shift the balance of power away from the extractive, colonial models that the coffee industry is built upon. But there is no dodging the truth: Companies need to pay farmers fairly for their coffee. While costs of production vary regionally, only a few of the largest and most mechanized farms in Brazil are breaking even at $0.90 per pound. For non-commodity grade coffee to have a future, things need to change.

Sign the pledge supporting small-scale farmers in their call for fair pricing: Sign here.

Support Community-Led Projects to Combat Climate Change

Around the globe, frontline communities are devising solutions to the climate crisis. And coffee farmers are no exception. Grow Ahead helps fund projects designed and implemented by the communities who own them, bringing together people around the world to support farmer-led projects. At Cooperativa Norandino in Peru, Grow Ahead brought together individuals and brands to help fund the co-op’s vision for a community-led reforestation project. They planted over 200,000 trees—and built a nursery to tend more into the future, planning for diverse seedlings to feed families, provide income, shade cover, and sequester carbon too.

Now they are launching another project with Pangoa cooperative in Peru. Driven by the community’s vision, this project focuses on the reforestation project of the co-op’s women’s’ committee—part of their vision for combatting climate change and building economic opportunities for women.

Too often, development projects and carbon offsetting measures are driven by outsiders, by someone else’s idea of what a community might need. The solutions that Grow Ahead supports are developed by—and for—small-scale farmers and their communities—they are the ones who know what needs to be done, too often they just need financial support.

Take the next step and support this kind of grassroots approach to combatting climate change and building resiliency. Support Pangoa’s reforestation project here.

Join a Campaign Putting People and the Planet Before Profits

Low prices and the climate crisis are not just a coincidence. They are the consequence of a system that is built to value corporate profits above all. With yet another white paper on the pile pointing to the focus on shareholder returns and short-term corporate gains as one of the big obstacles to fair livelihoods for farmers, it’s high time to take action. Nestle, JAB Holding Company (owner of a vast array of brands including Keurig Green Mountain, Caribou and Peet’s Coffees, specialty coffee companies like Intelligentsia and Stumptown Coffee Roasters, as well as Krispy Kreme, Snapple, Dr. Pepper), Smuckers, Kraft Heinz, and Starbucks are just a few of the ten companies that control nearly half the world’s coffee. This consolidation is not unusual in our food system. Instead, we see it all around. Big Food companies use their market leverage to exploit communities around the globe—low prices, exploited labor, environmental extraction are all part of their model. To tackle the coffee crisis, we need to turn our attention to the larger structural problems: an unjust food system designed to exploit.

For years, fair trade advocates have tried to go campus by campus to build commitments—and contracts for—fair trade coffee. But the Real Meals Campaign takes that further, recognizing that the problems facing small-scale coffee farmers are similar to those facing so many communities around the globe. Add your voice to those calling on Aramark and the big foodservice companies to commit to making change in how they source not just their coffee, but all their food. Sign the petition here and look for more ways to get involved this fall.

If you are looking for coffee choices that support small-scale farmers and their initiatives, check our list of Mission-Driven Brands. That’s one action you can take every day, International Coffee Day or not.


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