In the current age of going green and sustainability permeating every facet of our daily routine, the coffee industry is one that has taken the mission to heart, incorporating the concept into every aspect of the supply chain, from seed to cup. But for all of its efforts, one fact that stubbornly remains is that by nature coffee is a fundamentally unsustainable product: environmentally, socially, and economically.
I often lament how little the average consumer knows about and respects the amount of work that went into that cup of coffee they so desperately need to get them through their morning. Coffee, being easily one of the most labour-intensive agricultural products in the world, is grown exclusively in developing countries, populated by a great many of the three billion people in the world living on less than $2 a day.
The economics of coffee for the producers is untenable as it is, for one simple reason -- we don't pay them enough for their product. Five dollar lattes and Fair Trade premiums notwithstanding, coffee is disturbingly inexpensive when you take a closer look at the numbers.
The cost of production of a pound of coffee is around $2.00/lb (this varies greatly country by country). Most farmers make a very small profit when they sell their coffee to the first of many middlemen that stand between them and you. When it finally gets to a café in Toronto, the cost of the beans is around $8.00/lb, which will make 30 good, strong cups of liquid coffee at about $0.27 per cup. The café has additional costs, like milk, labour, rent, etc., but a cup of black coffee still has one of the highest profit margins in the food industry.
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The caffeine in coffee could actually help you to <a href="http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2011-23154-001/" target="_hplink">spot grammar errors</a>, according to a new study in the <em>Journal of Experimental Psychology</em>. Researchers found that <a href="http://bodyodd.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/10/26/8498728-tank-up-on-java-unleash-your-inner-editor-says-study?ocid=twitter" target="_hplink">caffeine helped students to correct errors</a> in subject-verb agreement and verb tense, MSNBC reported. However, the caffeine still didn't seem to make a difference at identifying misspelled words -- sorry.
Women who drink a few cups of <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/27/coffee-cuts-depression-women_n_982122.html" target="_hplink">caffeinated coffee have a lower risk of depression</a> than women who don't drink any coffee, according to a Harvard study. That research, published in the <em>Archives of Internal Medicine</em>, shows that women who drink two to three cups of coffee a day have a 15 percent lower risk, while women who drink four or more cups of coffee a day have a 20 percent lower risk. Study research Dr. Albert Ascherio <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/27/coffee-cuts-depression-women_n_982122.html" target="_hplink">told HuffPost</a> earlier that "caffeine is known to affect the brain," because it "modulates the release of mood transmitters." "I'm not saying we're on the path to discovering a new way to prevent depression," he said. "But I think you can be reassured that if you are drinking coffee, it is coming out as a positive thing."
... Well, maybe. A study in the <em>Journal of Alzheimer's Disease</em> suggests that there's something in coffee -- though researchers have yet to determine what exactly that "something" is -- interacts with caffeine to boost the levels of granulocyte colony stimulating factor (GCSF), a growth factor that seems to be able to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/24/coffee-could-ward-alzheimers_n_882931.html" target="_hplink">fight off Alzheimer's disease in mice</a>. The amount of coffee needed in the study is equivalent to about four or five cups of coffee for humans. Researchers said <a href="http://www.j-alz.com/press/2011/20110621.html" target="_hplink">GCSF likely has this effect</a> because it causes stem cells in the bone marrow to come into the brain and remove the beta-amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer's disease. It also has a role in forming brain cell connections and creating new brain neurons, researchers said.
A Harvard School of Public Health study shows that men who drink six cups of coffee a day have a 60 percent decreased <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/18/coffee-can-cut-prostate-c_n_863472.html" target="_hplink">chance of developing a dangerous form of prostate cancer</a>, as well as a 20 percent decreased chance of developing any other kinds of prostate cancer. The study, published in the <em>Journal of the National Cancer Institute</em>, also shows that just <a href="http://jnci.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2011/05/17/jnci.djr151.abstract" target="_hplink">drinking just some coffee a day</a> -- just one to three cups -- could still cut prostate cancer risk by 30 percent.
New research presented at the American Association for Cancer Research conference shows that coffee could help to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/24/coffee-most-common-cancer_n_1025089.html" target="_hplink">ward off basal cell carcinoma</a>, the most common cancer in the world. Researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that women who drink three or more cups of caffeinated coffee a day have a 20 percent lower risk of the skin cancer, while men had a 9 percent lower risk. Decaf coffee didn't seem to have the same protective effect -- so "our study shows that the inverse association with BCC appears due to caffeine, not other components in the coffee consumption," study researcher Fengju Song, Ph.D., earlier <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/24/coffee-most-common-cancer_n_1025089.html" target="_hplink">told HuffPost</a>.
Drinking coffee is associated with a <a href="http://archinte.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/169/22/2053" target="_hplink">lower Type 2 diabetes risk</a>, with more coffee consumption linked to a greater decrease in risk, according to an <em>Archives of Internal Medicine</em> review of studies from 2009. In that review, researchers looked at data from more than 450,000 people in 18 studies, and found that for every extra cup of coffee drank a day, a person's risk of Type 2 diabetes decreased by 7 percent. However, researchers cautioned that "the putative <a href="http://archinte.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/169/22/2053" target="_hplink">protective effects of these beverages</a> warrant further investigation in randomized trials."
Drinking <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20182023" target="_hplink">a few cups of coffee a day</a> could lower the risk of developing Parkinson's disease by as much as 25 percent, according to a study published last year in the <em>Journal of Alzheimer's Disease</em>. In that review of studies, which was published in the <em>Journal of Alzheimer's Disease</em>, researchers examined 26 studies that involved 125,000 British people, to find that <a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/7815087/Coffee-can-cut-chances-of-developing-Parkinsons-disease-according-to-new-research.html" target="_hplink">two or three cups of coffee</a> seemed to have the optimal effect, <em>The Telegraph</em> reported.
The benefits of coffee
Now, imagine for a minute that the entire coffee community could get together and agree to pay $1 more per pound, all of which was guaranteed to get into the farmers' hands. With that cost being passed all the way through the chain to the end consumer, that now $9.00/lb coffee would raise the cost per cup by just $0.03.
Think of the good we could do when considering a few more numbers: Canadians drink just shy of three cups of coffee per day, so with the $0.03 extra per cup, that would amount to $30.66 ($0.03x3x365) out of your pocket per year. Canadians alone drink in the neighbourhood of 14 billion cups of coffee every year, so just considering our consumption here, that extra three cents could conceivably result in $420,000,000 flowing directly into the hands of those who need it most -- the rural, the marginalized, those who have the least access to social programs or government assistance, and who are the most difficult to reach through development projects.
And it should be said that, while development work is crucial, the people that know the needs of third-world farmers the best are the farmers themselves, many of whom face a difficult question every year when they are paid for their crop: do I feed my family or my farm?
This idea may sound like international wealth redistribution, but really, it's more akin to a long-overdue market correction - fixing the lopsidedness of an industry that has been built on an intensive agricultural product being treated as an easy-to-manipulate commodity. So while this dollar-more-per-pound-model is not perfect, or even feasible at the moment, it illustrates a point.
We are facing a new reality in not just the coffee industry, but the food system as we know it: the things that we consume are simply going to cost more than they have in the past. Not only because costs of production are constantly rising, but because that market correction isn't just something that should happen... it's something that needs to happen to fix what has become an unsustainable agricultural model.
Buying great quality coffee is one way to ensure we're paying more for it -- as with anything, growing something of great quality costs money. But quality shouldn't be the only reason we pay more. Bad farmers don't grow bad coffee. In fact, little if any coffee is grown by bad farmers. Some grow quantity, some grow quality, and many fall somewhere in between. While there is no doubting that a higher quality of product deserves a higher price, the average price must come up to ensure that every coffee farmer's quality of life improves.
We need to create, or rather adapt to, a truly sustainable business model for coffee; one where the producer, consumer, and everyone in between are all financially, environmentally, and socially stable. I know I can comfortably speak for the coffee industry by saying that we're actively working on it, every single day.
What can the average coffee drinker do to support this? There is no one answer, yet. So buy your daily cup(s) of coffee from roasters and shops that are going above and beyond for the benefit of the farmers that are producing their coffee -- they're quite easy to find with just a little bit of research. And the next time you see an infomercial that asks you if you are willing to save a child's life for "just the cost of a cup of coffee a day," think about just how much more good you could do by spending an extra $0.03 on your actual cup of coffee every day.
Follow Adam Pesce on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RICoffee