Saturday, November 11, 2017

From Chains to Supply Chains

Thank the Farmers
I love coffee. Most people who know me know this about me.

I have a lot of fun with coffee and the many ways it intersects with geography and popular culture. I am, in fact, enjoying my umpteenth cup of fine coffee of the day, even as I write this.

But as most people who know me realize, my love of coffee is exceeded by my love of the people who produce it and the lands from which the best coffee is grown. I end almost every coffee story with the hashtag #thankthefarmers for that reason.

It is good to remember that however much fun we can have with coffee and however much we can appreciate the social and environmental benefits of coffee that is grown carefully and traded fairly, coffee can also be a very serious matter indeed.

A reminder come from a March 2016 Guardian article that has been sitting on my desktop since someone shared it with me a couple of months ago. For all this time, I have not know quite what to do with Nestlé admits slave labour risk on Brazil coffee plantations, but I knew I could not let it go until I found a way to share it and to connect it with my other work on coffee.

As I look at the title carefully, I notice two small things. Where The Guardian uses "slave labour risk" a U.S.-based paper would use "slave-labor risk." Spelling and punctuation aside, the use of the word "risk" is itself interesting. From the standpoint of a major corporation, the possibility that slavery was involved in its operations is a risk to be managed like any other, such as weather or the fluctuation of currency markets.

The article mentions two of the very biggest such corporations in the $77-billion coffee market, which were known at the time it was published as Nestlé and Jacobs Douwe Egberts. The latter is now known as JAB, which includes those companies as well as Keurig (a little Boston-based company whose convenient brewer was purchased by the erstwhile Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and eventually swallowed Green Mountain and much of the industry). Together they sell about 40 percent of all of the coffee that is sold on the planet. For food companies operating at this scale, the food and the lands and people from which the product comes are such abstractions that even fundamental questions such as slavery and freedom become mere columns in a spreadsheet.

If slavery -- or any other inconvenient truth -- turns out to be contributing to the bottom line, the equivalent of a politician's plausible deniability provides a convenient fig leaf to cover the original sin of greed. In coffee, that fig leaf is in the form of a supply chain that is deliberately blurry in appearance. Someone growing $5,000 worth of coffee in a year cannot bring it to the gates of Nestlé or JAB -- there are in fact no such gates. The small farmer sells to middlemen (always men, and known in Latin America as coyotes) who consolidate purchases for the convenience of large processors ; it turns out that even a large plantation can benefit from selling coffee through brokers who can hide their practices.
Federal auditor investigating claims of human-rights abuses on a coffee farm in Brazil.
Photo: Lilo Clareto/DanWatch via The Guardian
When price is the main competitive factor, the pressure to force prices down will stop at nothing, not even the use of bonded labor. When citizens -- sometimes thought of only as consumers -- push back, the race to the bottom involves deceit, even self-deceit. Kate Hodal's excellent reporting on this complicated matter could be read by some as Nestlé and JAB being victimized by bad actors in a complicated network of suppliers. Stories like this -- which have parallels in the U.S. chicken industry and throughout food systems globally -- can also be read as evidence that more vigilance and accountability is necessary.

Moreover, it is a reminder that education about coffee in particular and food in general should continue to begin and end with considerations of human rights.

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