Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Coffee conundrums

Yesterday morning – a fair, drizzly Monday morning in Vancouver – I woke up and realized there was no coffee left in the house. None of the caffeinated kind, anyway.

On a normal day, I’d panic, pull on my jeans and head straight to the neighbourhood JJ Beans for a half-pound of fine espresso.

After all, my espresso machine is hungry, daily, and consumes quite a bit.

It does that so that I can be thirsty, daily, and consume my daily espresso – long, tall, and filled to the brim of a standard coffee mug.

That’s how I get my kicks in the morning.

But yesterday, I had some freelance work to do, and needed to get it done before I headed to the office. No time, really, to head to JJ Beans.

So, I thought, why not go there on the way to work – pick up a double Americano (or Canadiano, as we nationalist Canadians like to call it) – and drink it back on the way to the office?

Sure, sounds good. As I set to work with a hot cuppa tea – well, it’s caffeine, in some ways – I realized I wasn’t nearly so tired as I normally would be without my coffee.

When I wrapped things up and headed to the office, I started imagining that Americano (sorry, Canadiano) and my stomach slowly became acidic. It tightened up. As if my stomach was rearing back and saying “All right, hold your horses – maybe we don’t want more of that acid in here!”

Made sense to me. OK, I’ll skip that Americano. They have coffee at the office. If I really need some brew, then I’ll grab some when I’m there.

All day long in the office, I didn’t so much feel a need for a coffee, nor did I feel an urge for one. Hell, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted one. I was so pleased with the fact that both eyes were wide open and I was focused on my work. A little woozy, yes, but the withdrawal didn’t seem so bad as it had in the past if I even considered going a day without the fine joe.

Thoughts passed through my head then.


What is this stuff?

Well, it’s only one of the most anti-green friendly consumable products out there on our dear planet. And that’s nothing to snort at, it being one of the top two consumable products in the world – the other being, of course, tobacco.

Consider this: Coffee goes through several stages of development, each of which, when unregulated, has a drastic effect on all three aspects of sustainability – environmental, economic and social.

Let’s try environmental for starters. Coffee, for many large coffee growers, needs large areas of land on which to grow. So, let’s buy that huge swath of land in the north of Brazil and rip everything up, put down some prime soil and start planting away. Already we have trees taken out, ecological environments disrupted, and so on – sort of a warm-weather version of the clear-cutting that goes on (still, we think) in B.C.’s cold-weather rainforests.

Coffee berries grow on the coffee plants, and it’s in the seeds of these berries where we find our joyous bean.

These berries are first plucked free from the plant, and then a long process where the beans are extracted from the berries. The beans are then dried up, and we have a fine collection of green beans – which is the virgin coffee bean, before it’s gone through the roasting process.

What happens to the rest of the berry, do you think? Well, in many cases, it’s just pulp, and it’s dumped because it’s considered worthless and useless. Plenty of waste there – and not good waste either. It rots, it collects flies, and gets moldy. Yes, it’s returning to the earth, being turned into soil once again, but in the meantime, it’s just gross and it stinks. Not pretty, at all.

Then, the coffee beans themselves are transported, in mass quantities, all over the world. To Europe. Canada. The United States. Japan. This costs a lot of money, and this takes a lot of fuel to transport. Again, environmental impact.

And need I go on about pesticides?

And let’s try the economic aspects – don’t worry, I’ll try and be more succinct with this one. It’s no secret that coffee is grown in some of the poorer areas of the world, along the equator, in the tropics where the weather is prime for coffee growing. Many countries and people are solely dependent on coffee for their survival, and since much of their income comes from large corporations (here they shall not be named, but they shall be assumed by the reader), they are dependent on the going rate for coffee. If a corporation should decide to pay only $1 a pound for coffee from a certain farmer, it’s hard for that farmer to say no. His options are limited. This leads to all kinds of consequences – dependency, lack of opportunity, lack of growth, lack of economic evolution in that country. I’ll let you fill in the rest.

And then, social. This is linked closely to the economic aspects. Without a solid, healthy economy, a country has a hard time maintaining health care, education and all the other necessary government services that help a population be strong, motivated, energized, inventive, creative, pro-active, everything. When a country is solely dependent on coffee, it’s hard to have the luxury of options and choices. If farmers should join forces and decide to collectively raise prices in order to help themselves – and in turn, their surrounding community – then their main buyers will go elsewhere. It’s a catch-22 situation – can’t raise the prices because business and economy and society suffer, and can’t keep the prices as they are, because we have the same consequences.

And now, back to my cuppa joe. I miss out on one cup of coffee on Monday morning, at my desk at home, working on my freelance project, and getting ready to go to work.

And now it’s Tuesday morning, and I’m, again, having just a tall cup of tea. And still feel a little woozy, but mostly OK. It’s not so bad, I think.

And I consider how my off-the-cuff choice to not have a coffee affects the world economy or the world’s societies. It probably doesn’t do much at all, but it makes me consider more carefully my choices. I usually consider myself a conscientious consumer, but most of it is just loud talk – “I don’t go to *****, because I know they support this or that, or they oppress farmers, etc…” – but then I consider the places I do go to, the places I do buy my coffee from, and I realize that I don’t look so deeply.

Maybe I’m just a prejudiced consumer. I boycott certain operations and choose other ones, just because I’ve prejudged them rather than really going deeply into why I make these choices.

Yes – missing a cup of coffee may have worked, even if making a choice wasn’t the point in the first place.


Nanda said...

I like your post!

It reminded me of my grandparents who had a coffee farm. Well, they did make a good money, though.

Anonymous said...

Can Galiano have your espresso machine?

Kiefer said...


Anonymous said...

Fair trade seems to be taking off. Most of the gas stations here have fair trade. I even saw starbucks with one variety that was! Fair trade sounds like less screwed.hopefully true. Dan