US Farmers Have Begun Replacing Coffee With Ethical Substitute

Every morning millions of people get up to a fresh brewed cup of coffee . These coffee lovers know that their favorite beverage will help them wake up, stay up, and remain alert. They do not know however, about the long and torturous path coffee must take in order to reach their cups.

Coffee is one of the most important traded commodities in the world, ranking second, after oil. For the Western world, coffee is a beverage that is enjoyed because of its taste, which varies in intensity, as well as its relatively low price. Since the early 1970’s, the growing consumption of coffee has brought about a global “coffee culture” which varies depending on whether it is approached from the angle of a coffee consuming society, or a coffee producing society. Coffee culture in the Western world is about enjoying the experience of consuming or drinking coffee. This is evidenced by the number of coffee houses we now find in most major North American cities. These coffee houses specialize in creating contexts for the “experience” of drinking a particular blend or flavor of coffee. The decor found in these coffee houses invites the drinker to sit down and take the time to enjoy a cup of coffee, and maybe even buy some ground coffee to go, as well as other accessories, such as, cups or coffee pots, so that the same coffee experience may be enjoyed at home. In the end, the experience becomes the product (Fine and Leopold, 1993;198).

Most coffee consumers in the Western world are unaware of the long and arduous labour intensive process growing coffee entails. In coffee producing countries, this labor intensive process is what defines their “coffee culture”.

Due to poverty, children under the age of 13 in Guatemala are forced to work 8 to 10 hours in coffee and vegetable farming every day and are unable to attend school. Much of what they produce is exported to other countries like Canada. (CNW Group/World Vision Canada)
Due to poverty, children under the age of 13 in Guatemala are forced to work 8 to 10 hours in coffee and vegetable farming every day and are unable to attend school. Much of what they produce is exported to other countries like Canada. (CNW Group/World Vision Canada)

Last year, I traveled to Guatemala, during the month of September, in order to learn about the long route coffee must travel before it reaches the Western world, well as the different kind of coffee culture in its native land. Guatemala ranks third as a producer of Arabica beans worldwide, behind Colombia and Mexico. Coffee in Guatemala is more than a beverage, it is the country’s number one export, followed by sugar and cotton, and it produces the country’s highest return. But in the countryside, coffee farmers or “caficultores”, do not think of these economic issues and how coffee affects Guatemala’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). On the contrary, coffee farmers grow coffee because it is a way of living, surviving and because it is what their ancestors have left them. Growing coffee is a long painstaking job that allows most farmers to reap the benefits of their harvests no earlier than two years after the original planting of a coffee tree; and only if the right climatic conditions have been available during this long process.Once the coffee berries are picked, they embark on a series of steps that prepare them forexport to the Western world.

The conventional route of coffee from tree to cup, starts with the farmer selling to the local middleman, who sells to the processor, and soon through the exporter, the broker, the importer, the roaster, the retailer; and finally reaches the consumer. In the case where the farmer is not a small-scale producer, but rather a large-scale producers, also known as a plantation owner, it is the poor peasants or “indigenous” people who do the picking and receive only a pittance for the sacks of red coffee berries they pick.In addition, small-scale coffee farmers are only able to obtain a small fraction of what their harvests will generate abroad, because their production is relatively small when compared to a plantation owner. There are however, fair-trade movements that have tried to adjust the price small scale farmers obtain for their coffee , to a more “just” fraction. This “just” price is based on a minimum which is paid to the coffee farmers, even when the international market dictates a lower price. In addition, the price of coffee on the international market fluctuates and in cases where the price has been above the set minimum, fair-trade movements will match the higher price. The reasoning behind such movements is that small-scale farmers have far less access to fertilizers, machinery and even capital, to invest in their crops, thereby rendering the process of growing coffee a more arduous process, than it is for the plantation owner. Such fair-trade movements include: Equiterre, Equal Exchange and Global Exchange to name a few.

These movements are designed to work in a cooperative structure, which enables their members to obtain a higher price for their harvests, through bypassing many intermediary traders. The route of coffee from tree to cup through a fair-trade organization starts with the farmer selling to the cooperative, then on to the importer, the roaster, the retailer; and finally the consumer. Still, both small scale farmers and plantation owners, are aware of everything that affects their product on the world market, and the fierce competition other producers generate.

Coffee culture in the producing societies has been affected by the recent arrival of Vietnam as a coffee producing country. In the year 2000, Vietnam dramatically increased its production of Robusta beans, which it to become the world’s number one producer of Robusta beans by the year 2001, surpassing Brazil. Vietnam’s over production of Robusta beans has created a crisis within the coffee industry, bringing the price of coffee to an all time record low, thereby affecting every single coffee producer world wide. Due to this crisis, many countries are looking to new ways to save their coffee crops, or have begun to replace their coffee crops with other crops, such as fruits or vegetables to export. However, in other countries, such as in Guatemala, farmers have decided to try to find new ways to survive in the coffee industry, and to find an advantage in order to maintain their competitiveness in the market.167110413FO2699-740x532

While in Guatemala, I was able to meet with different coffee farmers from different regions of the country, and was able to obtain information about the meaning coffee has in their lives, as well as what kind of role they feel they play in the coffee industry worldwide, especially during the crisis. As mentioned earlier, Guatemalan coffee farmers grow coffee because it is a way of surviving; it is what they do, and it is what their ancestors have left them.

From the different groups I interviewed, no one characterized growing coffee as an entrepreneurial venture, or as something that was relatively new to them. These coffee farmers had inherited their land from their parents, and growing coffee had been a way of life for their parents and grandparents as well. Today, however, Guatemalan coffee farmers do not grow coffee with the same way of thinking as their ancestors did. They now think of the different methods of intervention and care that can increase the likelihood of producing a high quality coffee bean. Guatemalan coffee farmers are aware of the different altitudes where coffee can be grown in Guatemala, and what types of quality beans are produced accordingly therefore. Coffee farmers are now paying close attention at the particular demands the Western world is placing on their product as well. As mentioned before, the coffee culture of the West is now looking to enjoy different types of coffee blends that may “transport” the consumer experientially. Most of these blends are made of Arabica and Robusta beans combined together, and so it is almost impossible to obtain a particular blend that may only contain Arabica beans. The process of creating blends takes place under the direction of a roaster, and so it has become a priority for Guatemalan coffee farmers to produce some of the best quality Arabica beans available in the market, in order to ensure a sale for their crops.


Most coffee farmers in Guatemala either belong to a foreign fair-trade organization, local cooperative or association that looks out for their interests in the same way fair-trade does. These cooperatives or associations receive knowledge and training through workshops set up by the Guatemalan National Coffee Association (ANACAFÉ), whose main purpose is to oversee the welfare of Guatemala’s most important export.These workshops provide knowledge concerning the improvement of current methods of caring for coffee trees, which are based on hearsay that has been passed from generation to generation; and introducing more scientific and organic methods of tending trees.During my stay in Guatemala, I was fortunate to participate in one of these workshops given by ANACAFÉ. During the workshop I was able to test my knowledge concerning the different altitude levels that produce different quality beans, as well as the different smells of different diseases that may attack coffee trees, and are in fact discernible in the final product, unless eradicated. These are a few examples of the type of sophisticated knowledge that Guatemalan coffee farmers are willing to learn to improve their crops, with the help of ANACAFÉ. However, one of the most interesting statements was brought forth by the main speaker at the beginning of the workshop; he stated: “…si el café no sale bueno, no le hechen la culpa a Dios. Es uno el culpable, por malos habitos debidos al tradicionalismo, y al costumbrismo. Eso se puede arreglar. No olviden que Dios camina contigo” (…do not blame God if your crops do not produce good quality beans. It is your own fault, for relying on traditions and bad habits. But these can be fixed and corrected. Do not forget that God is always with you).

ANACAFÉ’s purpose during the crisis is to improve the quality of coffee Guatemala produces. It stresses that in order to be a key player in the international coffee market, quality must be number one in order to obtain the best price available. ANACAFÉ adds that, today there is a lot of coffee and not enough demand, and so buyers become very picky and selective, and it is for these reasons that coffee farmers must also become very picky and selective in the methods they use, in order to obtain the best quality coffee beans.

ANACAFÉ has also undertaken an even larger task, that of extending the meaning of the term “caficultura” or “coffee culture” for Guatemala. For many years the term caficultura has referred to the process of growing, harvesting and producing coffee.Nowadays, ANACAFE is trying to extend the meaning of caficultura to include the elements which define coffee culture for the West, that is the symbolism of drinking coffee as an aesthetic experience in itself. At the ANACAFÉ workshop I attended, the speaker was quick to point out that no one was drinking coffee, but rather soft drinks. He added that in order for coffee to survive coffee farmers themselves should drink more coffee. It is with this idea in mind that ANACAFÉ has launched an entire campaign aimed at Guatemalan society to encourage them to drink more coffee, and to take pride in its own home based production. This campaign consists of different advertisements placed in bus stops or inside the pages of some local magazines, depicting a couple or a group of people enjoying a cup of coffee at a coffee house, or while studying at home. At the same time, these advertisements remind us to “drink pure Guatemalan coffee , the best coffee in the world”. In addition, ANACAFÉ has come up with a logo that will help consumers recognize Guatemalan coffee anywhere in the world, in the same way that
Colombia utilized the “Juan Valdez” logo for its national coffee . This logo consists of a
coffee bean circled by the phrase “100% Pure Guatemalan Coffee.” This particular logo is also recognized as “the symbol of purity”, due to the fact that it will be used only by those roasters in Guatemala who pass regular inspections.