Coffee: Frequently Asked Questions

Are there health benefits in coffee?

Coffee is increasingly being tied to a healthy lifestyle. Some studies show coffee consumption linked to lower rates of type 2 diabetes, abnormal heart rhythms and stroke. Some tests demonstrate lowered risk of liver cancer and potentially a lower chance of Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s. Because we enjoy both coffee and tea for their tastes, their potential benefits on our health come as an added bonus.

Why Whole Bean Coffee?

Each bean holds delicate and flavorful oils inside. When beans are ground, it releases the entire flavor that exists in the beans from the roast. However, if oils are exposed to oxygen for too long, they can become rancid and acidic creating a sour or bitter flavor. So, keep the flavor locked up until you are about to brew in order to ensure the best possible cup.

What is the economic situation of small farmers in the coffee industry?

Coffee is produced both on large plantations and by small farmers. Typically, Fair Trade farmers cultivate less than 3 hectares of coffee and harvest 1,000-3,000 pounds of unroasted coffee a year. Small farmers are perhaps more aptly defined by those farmers who rely principally on their own families’ labor. This makes Fair Trade potentially representative of an estimated 75% of all coffee farmers. Many coffee farmers receive prices for their harvest that can be less than the costs of production, forcing them into a cycle of poverty and debt. They are often forced to sell to middlemen who pay them half the market price, generally between $.30-.50 per pound. Family farmers usually bring in a cash income of $500-$1,000 a year for their coffee.

What are the labor problems and working conditions in the coffee industry?

Conditions for coffee workers on large plantations vary widely, but most are paid the equivalent to sweatshop wages and toil under abysmal working conditions. In Guatemala for example, coffee pickers have to pick a 100-pound quota in order to get the minimum wage of less than $3/day. A recent study of plantations in Guatemala showed that over half of all coffee pickers don’t receive the minimum wage, in violation of Guatemalan labor laws. Workers interviewed in the study were also subject to forced overtime without compensation, and most often did not receive their legally-mandated employee benefits.

Because of this situation, many coffee workers bring their children to help them in the fields in order to pick the daily quota. These child workers are not officially employed and therefore are not subject to labor protections. While children in most rural families work at an earlier age than urban children, a February 4 investigative report by ABC-affiliate KGO television in San Francisco revealed children as young as 6 or 8 years old at work in the fields. We believe that the best way to prevent child labor in the fields is to pay workers a living wage.

Most coffee workers, like many agricultural workers around the world, are not guaranteed their basic labor rights including the right to organize. The rural nature of farm work makes them especially vulnerable to threats and coercion, as plantation owners can take advantage of their control over the workforce to keep them from organizing into unions to demand their rights. Many countries have adequate labor laws such as minimum wage, mandated health and safety requirements, and freedom to form a union, but these rights are usually not enforced.

What are some of the environmental issues, like pesticides and biodiversity, with coffee production?

Coffee farming originally developed in Africa as an understory crop beneath diverse shade trees that provided habitat for wildlife such as birds, butterflies, insects, and animals. Traditional farmers usually use sustainable agricultural techniques including composting coffee pulp, rotating crops, and not applying expensive chemicals and fertilizers. In addition, they usually cultivate food alongside cash crops, and intercrop other plants such as bananas and nut trees, which provide food security as well as additional sources of income.

In the 1970s and 80s, as part of the general shift to ‘technified agriculture’ during the so-called Green Revolution, the US Agency for International Development and other groups gave $80 million dollars for plantations in Central America to replace traditional shade grown farming techniques with ‘sun cultivation’ techniques in order to increase yields. This resulted in the destruction of vast forests and biodiversity of over 1.1 million hectares. ‘Sun cultivated’ coffee involves the cutting down of trees, monocropping, and the input of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This type of industrial coffee farming leads to severe environmental problems, such as pesticide pollution, deforestation and the extinction of songbirds through habitat destruction. The Smithsonian Institute has identified industrial coffee production as one of the major threats to songbirds in the hemisphere due to deforestation – the birds no longer have a habitat in which to live. Soil and water sources continue to be severely degraded by many coffee farms, as coffee pulp is often dumped into streams. In addition to the harmful effects on the environment caused by the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides in coffee cultivation, workers are also at risk of drinking contaminated water and being poisoned by pesticides.

For these reasons, many bird, tree, and biodiversity conservationists have developed standards for promoting “shade-grown” or “bird-friendly” certified coffee — that is, coffee grown under a canopy of diverse trees that provide habitat to birds. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, as well as Rainforest Alliance and the Seattle Audubon Society, all promote various labels of coffee that promote tree and bird conserving farming practices. In addition, many consumers are committed to purchasing organic coffee in order to promote sustainable farming techniques in poor countries.

For more information, see the Proceedings of the First Sustainable Coffee Congress by the Smithsonian Institute, which is a valuable resource on all issues of sustainability.

How does Fair Trade address environmental issues such as shade grown and organic?

About 85% of Fair Trade Certified coffee is shade grown and either passive or certified organic. Over half of the certified organic coffee is produced by Fair Trade cooperatives, but unless the coffee is Fair Trade Certified, there is no guarantee that the farmer received the benefit. Certified organic coffees in the Fair Trade market receive a $.15 premium per pound. Typically, small farmers have never had the money to finance cutting down of the trees or purchase large amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Small farmers have traditionally passed on sustainable farming techniques to their children. We believe that small farmers are the best stewards of the land, with the highest interest in living in and passing on land with healthy soil free from harmful pesticides to their children. Paying farmers a fair wage with incentives for ecological practices is the best way to encourage sustainable farming. Fair Trade helps guarantee that the benefits of organic farming techniques reach the farmer as well as the consumer and the environment.

We support the shade grown/bird-friendly as well as organic labeling movements as an important tool for consumers to make responsible choices about environmental conservation, and support the double- or triple-labeling of coffee. Most consumers who believe in supporting living wages for farmers also support sustainable farming practices that promote environmental conservation.

How does the Fair Trade certification process differ from organic and shade grown certifications?

Organic, Shade Grown, and Bird-Friendly certification labels have contributed important and valuable efforts to promoting sustainable agriculture techniques that benefit farmers and the environment. However, they do not carry the encompassing attributes of the Fair Trade Certification process. Organic coffee is certified according to strict legal criteria. There are a number of different certifying agencies (QAI, OCIA) that all certify according to the same California Organic Foods Act and in accordance with the standards of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM).

Most (85%) Fair Trade Certified coffee is organic and shade grown, and most Shade and Organic coffee comes from farms that are organized as part of the Fair Trade network. Unfortunately, most organic or shade grown coffee is not Fair Trade; you still have to look for the Fair Trade Certified label to know if the farmer got a fair price.

Notably, unlike organic certification, all Fair Trade coffee monitoring and certification costs are paid by the roasters in the consuming countries and not by the farmers.

We believe Fair Trade and Organic labeling initiatives to be symbiotic, because what is good for the workers is good for trees, birds, and our shared environment.