Vicente Partida is the communications coordinator for World Coffee Research and the Borlaug Institute, WCR’s management entity. Follow his caffeinated ramblings at twitter.com/vincepartida.
For a first-time visitor, leaving Portland is a difficult task; falling in love with the city is just too easy. The cool spring weather, delicious diversity in food, great public transportation, and its love for the arts make Portland a place where any city-dweller would want to live.
Portland is also the city where coffee is more than just dark, caffeinated water in a styrofoam cup. Coffee in Portland goes beyond being a morning pick-me-up or an afterthought to a big lunch. Coffee in Portland is a culture. This is why the Oregon city was the perfect choice for hosting the 2012 Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) Event this past April. The five day conference hosted thousands of people from around the world. Roasters, baristas, coffee producers, researchers, and a variety of representatives from companies involved in coffee were in attendance.
A fellow WCR staff member and I happily joined our executive director at SCAA 2012. Our aim was to learn more about the specialty coffee industry. I wanted to know what issues the industry considered most important, how World Coffee Research could help, and how I could better communicate our mission and our future research.
One thing is clear, World Coffee Research is essential to achieving sustainability in specialty coffee.
SUSTAINABILITY: BEYOND THE BUZZWORD
Yes, you’ve heard it before. Marketing campaigns abound preaching about “sustainability” but exactly what it means is unclear and has become an annoying buzzword in the ears of consumers. The specialty coffee industry, however, has an excellent grasp on what sustainability means to them.
Peter Giuliano, director of coffee and co-owner of Counter Culture Coffee (a member of World Coffee Research) and immediate past president of the SCAA, recently wrote about sustainability in the coffee industry. In this article, he defines sustainability this way:
“…the idea that any action must be considered in terms of the possibility of its ability to be sustained over time. Damaging the environment is unsustainable, since a damaged environment will not produce coffee in the future. Poverty among coffee farmers is unsustainable, since any human who cannot feed his family by his labors will choose another livelihood or perish.”
The truth is that sustainability in coffee is not a marketing ploy to sell consumers the idea of a green, utopian industry. The specialty coffee industry recognizes that profits from a final product (the cup of coffee that you and I pay for) depend on the health and stability of elements across their supply chain.
The SCAA Event kicked off with a symposium where leaders in the industry talked about a variety of opportunities and challenges facing specialty coffee. The most discussed issues were those at the farm level.
Coffee farmers around the world, most of them small-scale and resource poor, are seeing dramatic changes in their production. Shifts in average temperatures and rainfall patterns threaten to decrease the availability of Arabica coffee beans. As climate changes, pests and plant diseases become even more of a threat to coffee production. Not only does this affect yields but it affects quality and, ultimately, the ability to sustain an industry that is based on quality attributes.
RESEARCH & EXTENSION: THE MISSING PUZZLE PIECES
If there is one thing that most of us in industrialized countries often fail to realize is that we have systems of agricultural research and development that have sustained our food industries. The reason that citizens of the U.S., for example, have never had to worry about famine or extreme shortages of agricultural products is because both our government and private sector have funded and conducted scientific work in agriculture.
This research is then translated and taken directly to farmers (in what we call Extension) who then are able to maintain high quality production, sustain themselves, their families, and our entire population. (Texas A&M University, the management entity of WCR, is part of the land-grant university system that suports research, education, and extension in U.S. agriculture. Look up the Morrill Act to learn more…)
Here’s the thing: that type of system doesn’t exist or is underfunded in most countries where coffee is grown. Farmers and their families often don’t have access to basic resources like water or electricity— much less, access to scientific agricultural information.
Also, unlike most other commodities— that is, crops that we consume on a daily basis like wheat, rice, and maize— there has been little to no plant breeding done on coffee. No, we’re not talking about scary “frankencrops” or GMOs. We’re talking about natural plant crossing and selection that has been practiced for thousands of years and that has produced the healthy, climate-adapted crops that support the world’s population today. Coffee needs breeding.
Leaders in the specialty coffee industry are putting their money where their mouth is by starting and supporting World Coffee Research. Companies and individuals along the coffee supply chain are contributing to scientific work that will increase productivity and quality. Our partners in research institutions, universities, and governments in origin countries are also contributing their efforts.
To our members and partners, WCR is not a charity or a campaign to appear to be “green.” To them, WCR is the beginning of collaboration among the private and public sectors to protect an orphan crop, enhance the lives of farmers, and strengthen the entire industry: SUSTAINABILITY. Achieving sustainability requires efforts in many different areas— agricultural production is one of them— and World Coffee Research is ready to help put together the missing puzzle pieces.
Not familiar with the term ‘specialty coffee’? Specialty coffee comes from beans with unique flavor attributes produced in geographic microclimates. Check out this article by Ric Rhinehart on the SCAA website to learn more.
Want to become a member of WCR? Click on “Get Involved” at the top right of our website or send us an email at info@WorldCoffeeResearch.org to speak to one of our staff members.