Sourcing and trading coffee; Certifications & Labels
This article is a work in progress, updated with new insights and experiences from my work in origin countries.
From many years of practical experience as a coffee and cocoa trader from Latin-American countries like Colombia and Venezuela, I learned how complex social-economic problems can be. My job is to find a balance between obtaining good prices, purchase conditions and high quality product for my clients and making sure farmers get a fair deal.
At the start of this work I remember wondering maybe naively things like, how come that farmers are so poor while the work they do, feeding the world, is so essential? Surely there are economic explanations with complex supply-chain and market models, but just from a gut feeling, a sober standpoint, I still fail to feel the logic.
Many certifications and seals promise consumers a better situation in terms of farmer income and livelihood. On many product packages we see happy, smiling, healthy farmers with their children going to school. Who doesn't want to be involved in a trade where every is happy and prosperous, right?
Unfortunately, its more complex and grim than that.
Capital dynamics in origin
The world of certifications is not always easy for the farmers since getting certified requires an investment and comes with yearly fees. Most of the farmers simply don't have the money for these processes and they are to busy struggling to make a minimal living from their crops.
When in the same region agricultural investment money flows in, in the shape of commercial farming initiatives backed by large companies or investors, these certification’s are easily obtained by them. These type of of ‘start-ups’ are often cleverly marketed, positioned as fair-trade and then connected to the global trade highways.
These connections are most of the time already in place, since these investments often come directly or indirectly by special export-interests.
As a consequence the wealth-gap with the local, native farming grows even bigger.
I have seen that in this dynamic, the smallest and poorest farmers are often left out of the opportunities that many seals promise or even claim. The certification system mainly benefits the middle and higher agricultural classes. I really don't think this is what importers and consumers want or expect when they pay their premiums in the stores.
Another example. Switching to organic production for the average farmer often means a significant decrease in yield per hectare and the prices that the local markets pay does not compensate for these losses. This-way, farmers become dependent on foreign markets where importers and consumers are willing to pay the premium. This dependence means in practice, that they also become dependent on the contacts that can include their production in exports. If something goes wrong in these relations and it often does, the consequence can be that they are not only out of the export-game but also stuck with decreased yields. This of course can ruin entire farming families.
All these pretty stories about helping farmers with knowledge and expertise, NGO’s stepping in and getting involved in local communities. Certification and and sustainability projects that are blown up for marketing purposes. They come and they go.
Most of these initiatives are really not so popular with the local people from what I have experienced. Their needs are not that complex as we somehow seem to make it.
For farmers, by far the most important and desired thing, is simply getting a dollar per kilo more for their crops. For knowledge there is often more than enough local experience.
Idea: Call to action
Personally I think more impact-research has to be done (and transparently published) with a focus on the specific impact of seals/labels and certifications on individual native farmer income. No pretty talk and marketing, just the raw, hard numbers. All these data technology that is available nowadays, where are the real numbers for individual farmers, per community, per country for each label?
Only with authentic data importers and consumers can become better informed about what really works and what not.
Ultimately, as a consumer it's important to determine whether the money you spend on groceries should make a statement about your position on issues like local agriculture, farmer livelihood or environmental sustainability. As supply chain participants we want to be able to look people in the eyes and feel confident about that what they are paying extra for, really works, right?
So in other words, I say lets make things measurable, this really should not be so difficult to execute.
Let's get to work!
If you know of any research showing concrete numbers on farmer income as a consequence of certifications labels/seals, please contact me. My goal is to collect this information and publish more about it. I highly appreciate any contribution, thank you.