Sustainable production of coffee is another huge topic, one that deserves multiple research papers all by itself. The same United Nations report that discussed the free fall of coffee prices and the economic repercussions thereof makes repeated calls for guaranteeing the future of coffee through “prioritizing the issue of economic sustainability, i.e. to ensure that coffee production does not entail a loss to growers.” Dr. Nestor Osorio, author of the report and Executive Director of the International Coffee Organization, declares that, while “the most obvious strategy” for sustainability would be crop or activity diversification, either of which might yield a better return, many coffee farmers simply don’t have that option.
Due to local climate and geology, infrastructure, and restrictions on market access to other crops, it can be an exceptional challenge to establish any alternatives to growing coffee. Peter Giuliano of Counter Culture adds that, compared to other tropical crops, coffee can bring farmers a lot of money, comparatively speaking. Further, of the other crops that can be grown as second crops in coffee farming, most don’t store nearly as well as coffee beans. An additional difficulty is over-intensive farming, a common occurrence, because it often happens that one small plot of land must support an increasing number of people over time.
While economics it an important part of it, the issue of sustainability is far broader in scope. As well, sustainability encompasses environmental, social, and quality issues. It has been suggested that current, conventional, intensive agricultural methods, destructive to the environment, are simply not sustainable in the long-term. Given that conventional coffee production accounts for the overwhelming majority of the coffee bean crop annually, this must be of some concern. Is organic farming the answer, then? Not entirely. Organic coffee beans can command higher prices than those produced conventionally, and organic farming addresses concerns both environmental and social, but organic farming doesn’t guarantee economic sustainability or assure the farmers’ well-being.
How about Fair Trade certification? That’s not the whole answer, either. The Fair Trade programs’ primary concern is with decent living and working conditions for farmers and workers; sound environmental practices are not given the same priority. How about shade grown or Bird Friendly coffee? Like organic farming, these are agricultural systems, concerned largely with the environment and biodiversity. Shade grown/Bird Friendly coffee farming can yield a second crop for the farmer, which should improve his/her economic situation and minimizes risk in case of the failure of the coffee crop, but in no way does either practice promise long-term economic viability. Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea has a long, well-written article on their website about their buying practices, which they refer to as Direct Trade, a trademarked term (the company does not carry coffees certified Fair Trade).
The Fair Trade Certified seal provides assurance to consumers that workers have received decent wages and working conditions, and farmers have received a fair price for their coffee.
Intelligentsia believes that truly sustainable coffee production requires “a mutual investment of energy and the idea of creating strategies together as partners in the pursuit of better quality, better return, and long-term viability.” Every link in the long chain of coffee, from grower to miller to exporter to roaster, is key; the company’s website states that “when all of these people work in harmony and with full transparency, it is called ‘sustainable business’.”