Friday, October 27, 2006

New Documentary Highlights The Real Price of Coffee: Starving Farmers in Ethiopia

After watching Nick and Marc Francis’s documentary about coffee you might wonder what you can do. On one level, Black Gold is about the iniquities of world trade, which is not something the average consumer can solve in their coffee break. On the other hand, the film’s scenes of poor farmers in Ethiopia, and of a child being refused medical care because it is not yet malnourished enough, do add a moral dimension to that morning latte. To illustrate the question, Marc makes a suggestion: go into Starbucks and ask for a latte made with Fairtrade coffee, and see what happens.
So on Sunday afternoon, at Starbucks on Highbury Corner in London, I do. At first, there is confusion, and “Fairtrade” is misheard as “frothy”. I am then assured that the two special blends of the day, Verona and Estima, are Fairtrade, and that while I can’t have a Fairtrade latte, I can have a cup of one of these, topped up with frothed milk. The resulting coffee is a horrible compromise; too milky and too weak.
Black Gold has been compared to Morgan Spurlock’s McDonald’s film, Supersize Me, but its target is broader than Starbucks. Four corporations – Kraft, Nestle, Proctor and Gamble, and Sara Lee – dominate the world market. Coffee is the world’s second most traded commodity (after oil) and is subject to fluctuations in price which bear no relation to the cost of production.
The film follows Tadesse Meskela as he tries to bypass the New York commodities market to sell the product of the Oromia farmers’ co-operative. Amid a blizzard of statistics, one of the most illuminating scenes show Meskela explaining to the farmers how much a cup of coffee sells for in the North. The answer is shocking. In Ethiopia, a coffee is $0.12. In the US: $2.90. A kilo of coffee will make 80 cups, and sells for $230 in the US market. Of this, the Ethiopian farmer will receive 23 cents. The farmers’ families live in crowded houses with no running water, and no school for their children – a scene which contrasts painfully with the glitz of the World Barista Championships in the USA, where contestants coax patterns in the froth of their cappuccinos. “When you have a cup of coffee, you are immediately linked to a global economy,” says Marc Francis. “We made the film to show what’s at the bottom of the cup.”
The Francis brothers began their film 20 years after the television images of the Ethiopian famine prompted a flurry of aid projects, and they hope to change the perception of what the developed world can do. “Should we dig in our pocket to give them a well?” asks Marc. “Or should we make sure that the community in Ethiopia get more money for growing coffee so we don’t have to give them a well? The first positive step as consumers is to be able to vote with our wallets.”
Fair Trade can be part of this, though there are arguments about whether the system is fair enough. “If you buy a Fairtrade pack of coffee, you can be guaranteed that the farmer’s being paid a minimum price,” says Nick. “But if everyone switched to Fairtrade tomorrow, the farmers would still be in a similar position. They won’t fall into a crisis, but they won’t be able to have running water and all the basic things that we take for granted. The challenge is to switch the structure so they can catch more of that £2.50 cup of coffee.”
Marc, the more pragmatic of the brothers, argues that consumers should quiz companies about how ethical they are. “Don’t be afraid to say: ‘I like your coffee, but what’s the deal here? I want to buy into quality, but I don’t want to buy into exploitation – where do you sit on this?’ If the signal is being sent that the consumers genuinely care that the producers of the raw materials get paid fairly, the companies will respond.”
There is another reason to pay attention to the coffee you’re drinking: taste. Ethiopia is the home of fine coffee, and that quality is worth paying for, regardless of arguments about Fairtrade. “We should be making decisions based on what is good quality,” says Marc. “We shouldn’t pay an extra 30p to do someone a favour.”
In the film, Meskela visits Waitrose, and struggles to find a fine Ethiopian coffee – eventually locating a jar of Mocha Sidamo. It is on the shelves, but hard to find.
In recent weeks, the trademark has been granted for Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, which could turn it into the coffee equivalent of Champagne. “Any coffee co which uses that name would have to be licensed and pay a fee,” says Nick. “That could revolutionise this conversation.”
POSTSCRIPT: Starbucks has opposed the Ethiopian bid to trademark the names of its coffees. Send an email to Starbucks CEO telling him what you think via this link .

And phone Starbucks to tell them what you think. See Oxfam press release here.