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Coffee: "Without it, we are all miserable"


A few of us at F&W have been blogging regularly about coffee. No surprise, since we consume it daily, obsess about it, look for more and better sources for it; nothing a textbook drug addict wouldn't do. And like many people who are becoming more politicized about food choices, I've been buying Fair Trade coffee whenever it's been easily available—but I haven't tried nearly hard enough. Watching the coffee-themed documentary Black Gold last night gave me a new kind of jolt and a drive to seek out beans whose production doesn't force farmers in developing nations into poverty while retailers make a killing. I promise I'll only hog this soapbox for another few seconds—just long enough to share a few pretty amazing stats:

International retail coffee sales have grown from $30 billion to $80 billion a year annually since 1986, while during the same period, coffee farmers' share of the sales has fallen by half.

Coffee farmers earn about 80 cents a pound for their coffee beans on the global market, thanks to exploitive trade practices. Meanwhile, good-quality coffee sells to consumers for about $8-$12 a pound.

Coffee is the second most actively traded commodity on the world market, after oil.

Coffees labeled Fair Trade are bought from farmers at prices that pay them a living wage (bypassing most middlemen and rigged market conditions). Right now, the Fair Trade price paid to farmers is $1.31 per pound, and $1.51 for organic. Compare that to the current non-Fair Trade rate of 80 cents, which is a fraction of what it costs to grow a pound of coffee in Ethiopia, one of the coffee-growing regions most decimated by the inequalities of the global market. Many farmers in Ethiopia whose lands produce excellent coffee beans are starting to switch to khat, a narcotic herb that fetches prices that won't drive them out of business.

Black Gold was screened in the U.S. last fall, and will be shown again around the U.K. starting in June. On the website there's a Coffee Calculator, where you can estimate how much of the money you're spending daily on coffee ends up with middlemen and retailers, and how much (little) goes to the farmers. And the "Without it, we are all miserable" quote in the headline above? It's from a wise barista in Trieste, Italy, that directors Nick and Marc Francis interviewed for the film.

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