Coffee Farmers and Food Insecurity: “The Thin Months”
Coffee growers receive one paycheck a year when they sell their harvested beans. With luck and a strict budget, this money can last the farmer until their next payment after next year’s harvest.
However, this single source of income is not enough for most coffee farmers. This includes farmers who receive premium prices for their certified organic and fair trade coffees. As a result, many farmers experience food insecurity — especially during the months leading up to harvest when funds run low. Referred to as “The Thin Months,” this period can often lead to food shortages and malnutrition among coffee farmers and their families.
Two other issues can exacerbate this problem:
- Harvests Can Be Unpredictable. Pests, weather, and the changing climate can negatively impact crops and, ultimately, lead to smaller yields or lower-quality plants. This means the amount of money farmers will receive for their crops can vary greatly from year to year.
- Malnutrition Leads to Generational Poverty. When children lack proper nutrition, they often have trouble focusing and absorbing their lessons. They also tend to have higher rates of absence from school. Due to the food insecurity caused by “The Thin Months,” children of coffee farmers often face malnutrition. This makes them unable to attend or complete school, which feeds a cycle of generational poverty within these communities.
How Buying Ethical Coffee Helps Solve This Problem
Most coffee shop owners want to purchase beans with strong traceability and as many certifications as possible. Yet, traceability, in particular, is difficult to find in the coffee industry. The best way to directly contribute to ethical coffee buying and put money into farmers’ pockets involves buying coffee from companies with a reputation for sourcing beans in a way that doesn’t harm the growers or the environment.
These beans may have a higher price tag, but you typically get what you pay for when it comes to coffee. Coffee beans purchased from micro-roasters that take time to get to know their farmers and pay a higher price to ensure they have a livable wage will be worth the money if you value ethics as a business owner.
Yet, only more research can help coffee buyers truly understand how to solve this problem worldwide. The majority of existing research about food insecurity and the neglect of coffee farmers focuses on South American countries. While a large portion of today’s coffee production comes from those countries of origin, current research doesn’t include high-producing countries in Africa and Asia that likely have their own unique issues. In order to fully understand the necessary actions needed to support the ethical purchase of coffee on a global scale, researchers must conduct studies in all coffee-producing regions.
What to Look for When Buying Ethical Coffee
As you shop around for the right coffee supplier for your cafe, you’ll likely notice a wide variety of descriptions and certifications for each coffee.
From fair trade to bird-friendly beans, it can feel a little overwhelming to decipher the many potential attributes of a specific coffee. To help you sift through the terminology and avoid any confusion, below you’ll find definitions and comparisons of the most popular coffee certifications.
Fair Trade vs. Direct Trade Coffee
The Fair Trade Certified™ seal is a legally binding certification while the term “fair trade” is not. Only Fairtrade International or Fair Trade USA® may grant this certification. Look for the green, Fair Trade Certified logo to ensure one of these two organizations certifies the coffee you plan to buy.
This certification is important because it ensures farmers receive a higher market price even if prices for their coffee beans drop. For example, current prices for Fair Trade Certified coffees include:
- Non-Organic Coffee: $1.40 per pound
- Certified Organic Coffee: $1.70 per pound
- Community Premium: Buyers also pay a community premium of 20 cents per pound for each coffee used to protect the environment, benefit the community, and improve business.
In contrast, the term “direct trade” has no legal meaning because no organization provides a service to confirm a “direct trade” coffee or offers traceability for consumers. That makes it impossible for consumers to know if coffee is, in fact, directly traded with a farmer for a fair price.
Shade-Grown vs. Bird-Friendly Coffee
The shade-grown description means farmers grew the coffee under a canopy of trees, which cover the coffee plants and help prevent erosion. While many consider coffee grown this way as bird-friendly, simply including the term “shade-grown” as part of a coffee’s label or description doesn’t mean anything. It’s not a legally binding term, so companies can place it on any coffee bag whether or not the beans actually grew under a tree canopy.
On the other hand, the official Bird Friendly® coffee certification from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center requires strict guidelines for shade-grown coffees. This makes them not only safe but also beneficial to local wildlife. Due to the strictness of this certification, coffee growers typically must follow organic farming practices even if they lack an official organic certification. If you buy a bird-friendly coffee, you can be fairly certain it’s a good choice for your business, your customers, and the environment.
The term organic is a legally binding certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). It means a farmer grew the coffee without any synthetic pesticides, holds the responsibility to address any erosion concerns, and separates any non-organic plants or fertilizer from the certified organic coffee plants.
Unlike products labeled as “natural,” the USDA certifies that any food product listed as “organic” came from a farmer who followed all of the requirements in order to produce an organic crop.
Rainforest Alliance vs. UTZ Certified Coffee
The Rainforest Alliance is an international nonprofit organization that requires farmers to adhere to standards of biodiversity conservation, improved livelihood for workers, natural resource conservation, and farm management. However, coffee carrying the Rainforest Alliance Certified™ seal now faces scrutiny based on this certification’s requirement that only 30 percent of a bag of coffee beans must pass muster to achieve certification. That leaves 70 percent of the coffee holding this seal as undocumented until companies “level up” over time as required by the organization. The main benefit of this certification is that it not only holds farmers accountable to the environment but also helps eliminate the exploitation of child labor — a major problem in the world of coffee farming — by enforcing livelihood standards for farmworkers.
The UTZ certification program works to ensure farmers sustainably grow and process their coffee — an attractive selling point for consumers. This certification also serves as a resource for farmers by helping them build on their sustainability practices and consistently improve their business models. The UTZ certification program, which merged with the Rainforest Alliance in 2018, now provides a well-rounded certification on which consumers can depend.
A Final Consideration
Certifications can provide a helpful tool to ensure the coffee you buy represents a source of good for both the coffee farmer and the environment. However, farmers already struggling financially may find these certifications expensive and difficult to attain. Moreover, it’s impossible for producers to receive premium coffee prices without these certifications. That makes it even more important to do some research into your roaster’s relationship with their coffee farmers or importers to learn more about your coffee’s farming process.
While many producers use traditional coffee-farming methods considered organic, bird-friendly, and beneficial to the environment, they simply can’t afford the certifications necessary to advertise those practices. Buying from roasters that have relationships with farms like this can help growers receive the credentials they need to earn premium coffee prices.