Tiffin Project

Coffee Certifications

by Mette-Marie Hansen on September 19, 2011

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“Is Your Coffee Fair Trade and Sustainable and Organic?”

I just got this question from a concerned consumer, and she was raising valid questions about well known certifications and buzz-words. The question is simple, and doesn’t require more than a yes-or-no, but as much as I love coffee, I love the opportunity to discuss and explore the perspectives. These days, coffee certified as Organic, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and many others, is everywhere. It has become mainstream, making its way from mass merchandisers to college dining halls, high-end restaurants and almost every place in between. British Columbians account for 13% of the Canadian population, but is buying a majority of the organic food products sold in the country.

Coffee thrives in a narrow belt around the equatorial line, meaning for the most part growing in less economically developed countries. Most coffee farmers in the specialty coffee niche are small holder farmers. Going through the process of becoming certified – Organic, Rainforest Alliance, Utz and many others – is expensive and out of reach for many of these farmers, not only because of the intensified labor required, but also because they actually have to buy the certificate.

For small holder farmers trying to achieve a substantial premium by producing high quality coffees, Fair Trade is out of the question because only cooperatives can be certified. Even if the premium recently went from $0.10 to $0.20 cents per pound above the commodity market prices, it is a very small premium compared to the premiums paid for specialty coffee, which can be well above $1 per pound. The commodity market for coffee has more than doubled since June 2010, but coffee is still the most affordable luxury, taken how labour intensive producing it is.

On the farm where the coffee is growing, organic practices are making a big difference for the people working with the product. It is better for the soil, for the people picking it and for the waste from coffee processing. Even though the certification has been criticized for not taking quality into the equation, some organic certified coffee farmers are performing state-of-the-art farming techniques, resulting in some of the best coffees in the market. The expenses are still there, though, and often farms produce with no chemical inputs, simply because they can’t afford any sort of treatment for soil or plants.

As much as it is clearly a wise choice to choose organic, there’s another piece missing in the equation – the relationship and distance between producer and consumer. And not necessarily distance measured in kilometers – also proximity in the chain of custody and the opportunity to gain in-depth knowledge about the product for those who wishes to seek these answers. Investigate what sustainable means, and how producers have attempted to do what they do in a best possible way. I would argue, that even if all kinds of certifications are good for some things, you really need to look into the overall picture – how, where and when was it produced? When you count stickers or distance in kilometers, you tweak the focus and end up loosing sight of what truly is the most exciting part of your consumer power and the art of eating and drinking.

~ Mette-Marie Hansen

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