Buyers of certified organic and fair-trade coffee may rest easy knowing their purchase is better for the environment, but whether or not it's better for the coffee producers has become a matter of debate.
A study by Germany's University of Hohenheim into Nicaraguan coffee production has found that over a 10-year period, "organic and organic/fair-trade farmers have become poorer relative to conventional producers."
The study, newly published in the journal Ecological Economics, adds that "profitability and efficiency need to be increased because prices for certified coffee cannot compensate for low productivity, land or labour constraints."
"I don't think they're falling behind," said Don Munroe, treasurer and volunteer with World Community Development Education Society, a Comox-based organization that works with a certified organic shade-grown coffee co-op supporting 18 families near Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
The study involved a household survey of 327 randomly selected members of conventional, organic and organic/fair-trade certified cooperatives in Nicaragua, supplemented by more than 100 in-depth interviews.
It recommends that policy "move from certification schemes to investments in the farm and business management skills of producers as well as the establishment of public extension and production support systems."
Munroe said that over the past decade, he has seen real improvements in the standard of living of farmers due to higher prices for beans and a policy of mixed farming that provides both food for local families and cash crops.
"I think they're much better off. I think it makes a big difference to the people down there. We also want to educate people here about the differences they can make with the power of their purchasing dollar."
World Community guarantees the co-op at least $1.80 per pound, which compares with perhaps 70 to 90 cents per pound typically offered by regional coffee buyers, he said. The organization also pays a 30-per-cent deposit on the beans up front, in September, to provide the co-op with working capital through the growing season.
World Community imports 5,900 to 6,800 kilograms (13,000 to 15,000 pounds) of coffee beans annually into B.C.; the roasted product coffee retails for about $12 for just under a pound (400 grams) in stores from Nanaimo to Campbell River.
He still believes that higher prices offset any added labour costs and reduced harvests associated with certified operations, noting that some of those higher yields in conventional operations are short-term and don't account for reduced soil fertility over the longer term.
Doron Levy, owner of Trees Organic Coffee on Granville, said: "Most of the farmers in Nicaragua and other Central American countries are not growing organic coffee because they value the importance of organic products for the well-being of the earth and its inhabitants. It is because they cannot afford to purchase chemical herbicides and pesticide."
He added that the global consumer market for coffee is growing rapidly, mainly because of increased popularity in China and India, and that "it takes a long time to grow the niche of consumers who demand organic and/or fair trade products. Until the demand increases significantly across the world [by education, awareness] for these products, the farmers will continue to struggle."
Lloyd Bernhardt, president of Ethical Bean Coffee, said the study is good because it stirs debate and helps to ensure people don't take the issue for granted. But he also believes fair trade and organic are good for growers and the environment, adding many co-ops also provide medical and educational support for their members.
Neither Starbucks Canada nor Salt Spring Coffee commented on the study, which was conducted by the University of Hohenheim's Department of Agricultural Economics and Social Sciences in the Tropics and Subtropics.
"Certified coffees have distinct production and marketing systems with different associated costs than the conventional system," it said. "In addition, the rising quality standards for organic and fair-trade coffee increase production costs as more labour is needed."
It concluded: "Our study shows that higher farm-gate prices do not lead necessarily to higher per capita net coffee income, as yield levels, production costs, family and land size, as well as labour availability play important roles."
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