Top of the Crops

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Review of 'Coffee with Pleasure', Laure Waridel, Black Rose Books £10.99

It may only be a small cup of latte in your hand but, together with all the other coffees that are simultaneously knocked back across the world, coffee is one of the three most important commodities in the world. The trade, amounting to over $70 billion annually, sits alongside oil and arms at the peak of the world economy. Yet, as the most recent Oxfam report puts it, the huge profits produced by our infinite taste for coffee go to the four or five giant multinational corporations that control its distribution. To take just one of them, Nestlé's annual sales, according to Laure Waridel, amount to $50 billion annually.

At the other end of the chain are the mainly small farmers--some 25 million across the world--who grow and harvest the plain green beans. For every £2 jar of coffee their share is likely to be less than 10p. In the last ten years, in the context of globalisation, the number of farmers has shrunk and the domination of the coffee trade by the multinationals has deepened. At the same time, we drink twice as much coffee as we did ten years ago.

Creating that market is the job of the advertisers and the style makers--their power explains why Starbucks makes more than Boeing (both based in Seattle) every year. Over a decade we've been persuaded that coffee is the route to happiness, power, sexual triumph (remember the Nescafé neighbours) and the final victory over sleep. You used to get just coffee--now it comes with flavours, with chocolate, with swathes of comforting milk, in different shapes and sizes, and with pretty patterns on the top. No crime is solved, no political decision made, no advertising slogan coined without hundreds of cardboard coffee cups in evidence.

But, as is so often the case, as the markets grow control is removed from the producers. The world price of coffee is determined at two exchanges--in London and New York--where the corporations bid for entire crops. It may fluctuate, but you will notice no change in the price you pay at the supermarket. On the other hand, those changes will affect how much goes to the coffee farmers.

Waridel provides a clear and well informed picture of how the trade operates internationally (though her examples are almost entirely North American). And she makes a careful case for fair trade, using one example (the Mexican peasant producers of the south) to show how it can protect both the environment and livelihoods of small farmers. It's a system that guarantees prices for the producers, provides cheap credit to them, and tries to cut out the multiple layers of middlemen who have always profited from their labour. The principle is excellent--and we should seek out certified fair trade coffee, now that it is at least as good as any other coffee.

But there is a problem. With the best will in the world, fair trade coffee can never capture more than 4 or 5 percent of the market. The great corporations use pesticides to control the harvest, economies of scale to cheapen the process of roasting and distribution, packaging to seduce the consumer--and their products cost less as a result. They have even been subtle enough to adopt some of the labels--'organic', 'tree shaded' and so on--to capture part of the green market too. Whether the choice of fair trade goods can do anything to affect the global trade is a difficult issue--though there can be no doubt at all about whose side we are on. The anti-capitalist movement, as Waridel shows, has exposed the ruthlessness of a global economy that wraps itself in images of comfort, warmth and, when all Arabs are treated with suspicion and hundreds are detained without trial in the US, fulfilled desire. That is not an accident--it's the nature of the beast. Fair trade can make a tiny difference--but more importantly it can help to expose the character of the economic system in which we live, and the urgent need to replace it with one where justice governs every area of trade.