Coffee choices

Having written about the coffee growing process and in our last few weeks in the country, here is a very brief précis of the coffee industry beyond growing the bean.  There are 3 main varieties of coffee grown today, for different markets and end uses.  These are Arabica (the most well known), robusta and liberica.  Arabica is the bean you are most likely to find in your cup of espresso, while robusta and liberica are primarily used in blends and instant coffee products.

As with most food crops today, you can choose from conventionally grown, using synthetic fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, or organic coffees.  What you choose to drink is a personal choice based on factors including cost and environmental attitudes.  Anecdotally though, from sampling soil in the different plantations, and seeing the practices involved in growing by each method first hand, I lean heavily towards supporting organically grown coffee.   The soil structure and nutrition was better, soil microbiology and insect life was richer, and moisture holding capacity higher.  Yields were somewhat reduced though, due to increased resource competition with other plants.  Plus, there’s an awful lot of extra mowing to be done, using either fossil fuel or hand labour.

The choice between the 2 growing methods however is largely dependent on where your coffee is from.  Coffee rust is a fungal pest that is devastating coffee crops throughout Central America.  In El Salvador for example, 74% of coffee plantations are currently infected.    As the plague has spread throughout the Americas, and in regions where the soil and rainfall conditions favour the rust, chemical control is becoming increasingly necessary at least in the short term as the sole means to keep plantations alive and to have a chance of maintaining yields.  The choice between organic or conventional seems somewhat redundant when some regions are looking at very serious social and economic problems as a direct result of this disease.

In Costa Rica, growers either own a processing (milling) facility, usually as a cooperative like Coopedota, or sell directly to a milling company. Milling companies and cooperatives then sell the processed (died, roasted, bagged) coffee to further processors and vendors like Nescafé and Starbucks, sometimes through a wholesaler.

Coffee production is regulated by a whole swath of different certifications, including Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade, and Starbucks own certification, which regulate how coffee is grown, and the conditions that producers work under – and can be both a help and a hindrance to producers.

In short, it is a hugely complicated industry with many different ways for coffee to travel from producers to consumers – with some channels benefiting producers and their local environment more than others.

Work is underway and ongoing to improve the working conditions of those in the plantations and the profitability of the crop for growers.  CIMS is a non-profit organization working in Central America with large companies like Nescafé and NGO’s like iCafe to change their practices to improve conditions for the producers who supply them.

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