Press "Enter" to skip to content

The ‘wine of the bean’

I am a slave to the “wine of the bean” more commonly known as coffee. If I don’t have a cup of coffee before I start my day, I am just a ______ (I think vulgarities are not allowed on this blog) — well, let’s just say that I am a bad, unfriendly person.

The history of coffee is indeed intriguing. Coffee was apparently discovered by an Ethiopian shepherd who noticed his goats behaving strangely after eating the berries of the coffee plant (something that most people seem to know). Coffee was first consumed in the ninth century in Ethiopia. Only in the 15th century did it reach Persia, Turkey and North Africa, after which it spread to Italy and the rest of Europe and the Americas. The part that I like is the fact that it “was banned in Turkey in the 17th century for political reasons, and was associated with rebellious political activities in Europe”. I guess the “forbidden fruit” element does make it seem more attractive!

Times have definitely changed, as coffee is a common beverage available almost everywhere and anywhere. Coffee now ranks in the world’s top 10 agricultural exports by value. The bulk is exported to the US as Americans consume approximately 1,1-billion kilograms of coffee each year. As expected, the high global demand for coffee has led to economic and environmental challenges.

The environmental challenges are a result of the change of the traditional method of farming coffee in the shade of trees to farming in the sun for faster, higher yields. The large plantations using sun cultivation have resulted in deforestation, pesticide pollution, habitat destruction, and soil and water degradation. My love for my early-morning “wine of the bean” is a reminder of the contradictions I face as an environmentalist and a “happy” consumer. It is still a long road to a sustainable path even for me — I admit it.

The economic concerns are not unique to coffee — they revolve around the monopolisation of the coffee industry. Four huge companies purchase more than 50% of all the annual production and thus influence the price of coffee. In addition, coffee growers are being paid a small, nominal amount for their yields while multinational roasters make the bulk of the money.

Environmental and human rights activists in the US and Europe have campaigned for fair-trade coffee. This places conditions on the farmers as well as the roasters. Each fair-trade farmer must satisfy a list of criteria, including environmentally sustainable growing practices. Multinationals roasters then purchase the coffee from farmers at a more equitable value. The percent of fair-trade coffee is still very low (0,5%)! There are very few outlets that sell fair-trade coffee in South Africa.

South Africa is still nascent to holding corporations accountable for unfair practices. There have been isolated examples — bread price-fixing, the number of toilet paper blocks in a roll (a funny example, but still an example), a mining company charged for pollution. The King Report on Corporate Governance for South Africa, released in 2002, proposes that companies develop triple-bottom-line reporting that includes the economic, social and environmental elements of a business. At the moment this is done at a voluntary level and there are no mechanisms to monitor companies or to hold them accountable for their actions. It also applies to large companies, so smaller industries can get away with murder.

The Mail & Guardian has opened calls for entries for the Greening the Future competition, which looks for South Africa’s top green company. I am not sure of the criteria and how the awards are chosen. There is a concern that these awards merely give companies credibility for isolated activities and do not measure their activities in totality (perhaps the M&G could provide the criteria).

We need to raise the debates on corporate accountability and how to become a society that keeps an eye on what is happening. A false sense of “green” activities promotes the idea that all is OK — and this cannot be further from the truth. Perhaps a similar event should be held to expose companies that perform badly and that are causing harm.

South Africa needs a strong mechanism that is more binding than the voluntary King report. We also need legislation that will impose better labelling of goods — whether it is GMOs, harmful chemicals or preservatives, consumers should be given the right to choose. Becoming informed citizens is not about bourgeois greenies trying to seem politically correct. It is about becoming a society that is more aware and that will challenge injustices in all its forms. I believe that people do this in some way or another — maybe the efforts need to be more coordinated in the form of one organisation that would keep track of all industries’ activities!