Food (Policy) For Thought

A recent grad's musings on sustainable food systems, agriculture and more!


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Revisited: Gre(x)scape Into The Countryside

In light of the recent news out of Greece, I decided to revisit an old post of mine that is 2 years old almost to the month (fancy this blog existing so long) and do some more research on how Greeks have fared that choose farming as a last resort in an economic crisis with few equals.

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Image by Karl Baron, via Flickr CC.

The two minute gist: In 2012, when Greek unemployment rates hit 25%, many Greeks out of options turned to farming their ancestral land, arguing that it was relatively immune to crisis:

“I always wondered how it would be to be a farmer,” one newcomer to the fields said. “Whatever happens with the economic crisis, the sky will still be blue.”

These sort of mindsets let enrollment in farm schools skyrocket as citizens looked for a second economic base and sort sort of autonomy in a rocky world full of changes. However, the farming school director already worried about the future for these young greenhorns:

“I’m expecting about 1% of them to make it. They need to have some income, and this is a problem at the moment. They start without capital – these are desperate people. Their wives or they themselves are used to a different way of life – they are used to going to cafes, socialising in the afternoons. Being a farmer, you have to work 365 days in a year. Overnight, you have to change your life completely.”

Between 2008 and 2012, reports stated that the Greek agricultural sector had added 35’000 jobs, one of the few sectors to grow in the midst of a general recession. However, not all reports saw this development as sign of a sector untouched by crisis. Some argued that this addition of overqualified, but inexperienced workers was on the contrary a signal of how dire the economy really was doing.

Photo by marneejill, via Flickr CC.

Photo by marneejill, via Flickr CC.

Yet, maybe a “brain drain” back to the islands and hinterlands of Greece isn’t such a bad thing. NPR reported last year that particularly specialty food start-ups are paving their way into the international food scene. For decades, Greece has been heavily subsidized by EU farm payments and farmers became complacent and reactionary in response:

“Part of the [subsidy] money was supposed to go to modernization of techniques, new equipment, new ways of cultivating the land,” Makryniotis says. “Instead of making good use of this money, most of the money was wasted either on personal needs or consumption of farmers themselves.” Many Greek farmers planted just a few crops that were subsidized. “If olive oil was subsidized,” he says, “we just planted olive trees everywhere. And then we cut them out.”

As economists, PhDs and logistics specialists are taking up food production, they are taking up new marketing strategies that wouldn’t have crossed the mind of previous generations:

Lymperopoulos says Radiki is expanding its work outside of Greece: He now supplies produce from the Peloponnese to restaurants in Paris and London, and is also partnering with a Greek gourmet food company to sell sea greens to the U.S. “In Greece, we have the best products, but we don’t have a strategy,” he says. So like many entrepreneurs in post-austerity Greece, he’s decided to write his own.

In fact, think tanks are advising Greeks to focus job growth on a few key sectors where the country has a competitive advantage, agriculture being one of them. Yet, the latest figures from the Hellenic Statistical Authority dampen the hopes of a renaissance of the sector: from 2011 to 2013, the work force in the agricultural sector shrank again by more than 20’000 heads. In 2013, unemployment was at 27.3%. So maybe the euphoria of the 2012 wave of converts has come to an end?

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Photo by bongo vongo, via Flickr CC.

If we know anything, it’s that starting up a profitable agricultural business, particularly as a newcomer with little practical experience or family history, is extremely hard even under non-crisis circumstances (take the US for example). Doing this without good access to credit, a customer base that is also cutting down on their expenditures and with existing competition of professional farmers that have seen incomes drop by 14% is even harder. In fact, the percentage of people reporting having not enough money to buy sufficient food rose from 9% pre-crisis to 18% according to the most recent data. So farming could on the one hand help to at least get some food on the table, but as a business model it seems shaky.

So while specialty producers (such as these saffron farmers) may continue to prosper (and make nice news headlines), and farming is a way toward food independence for others, I am skeptical whether the sector is the “secret weapon” and “light at the end of the tunnel” that it’s hailed to be. For that, you need strategies, opportunities, and stability – none of which is on offer in Greece at the moment.


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Kampot Pepper: A History Spanning Civilizations

The story of Kampot pepper begins 800 years ago. At least according to written records: Chinese explorer Tchéou Ta Kouan traveled Cambodia in the 13th century and famously referenced the crop that came to define a whole region. Apparently, it is likely that some of his countrymen brought the crop along when they immigrated from the Hainan province of China. They would plant the crop at the outskirts of the jungle, using vines as support structures for the plants to grow on. IMG_9422When the Indonesian province of Aceh was attacked by the Dutch and erupted into war in 1873, the Indonesian sultan wanted nothing less than leave the priceless plantations in the hands of his enemies. So he burned them to the ground, leaving the Cambodian competitors to take over the market.

IMG_9424However, even Kampot pepper fell victim to colonial profiteering. Under the French protectorate rule in the 19th century, pepper production in the province skyrocketed as colonial masters took over the land and its wealth. At its peak production, the country exported around 8’000 tons of pepper to Europe. Parisian restaurants with a reputation would only ever use Kampot pepper in their dishes.

Yet, pepper production was still buffeted by the wind of international politics. The French protectorate of Cambodia was in fierce competition with the French colony of Cochin China, and sporadic import bans or high export tariffs were put into place to Kampot products in order to favor the colonies. By the 1960s, exports dropped to around 3’000 tons of pepper, which now competed on the basis of its superior taste.

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The greatest crisis hit when the Khmer Rouge rose to power. Something as extravagant as spice production had no space in their utopia of an agrarian, equal society. What the country should produce was rice – and nothing but rice. So virtually all of the pepper plantations were destroyed to make room for the staple crop, and almost all of the knowledge surrounding the high-quality production was lost with them.

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Contrary to common belief, the Cambodian period of turmoil was not over with the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Rather, the invasion by the Vietnamese sparked yet another civil war when the fighters fled to border regions and made repeated attacks into the “freed” areas. Only in the 1990s did UN-led peace negotiations lead to something resembling normalcy, and some of the oldest families returned to their land to restart the pepper business. They were encouraged by the fact that pepper prices at that time were promisingly high.
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After 4 years, once the first real harvest arrived in the markets, Kampot’s pepper farmers had to recognize that too many of their neighbors had the same idea: overwhelmed by the instant spike in supply, prices plummeted and the new business owners had to deal with losses instead of the profits they were hoping for. Many, discouraged, left the farms yet again to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

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Only after decades of painstaking recovery has Kampot pepper production succeeded in a revival of sorts, spurred along by enthusiastic foodies like my friends and I that go on pepper tours to witness and understand such a unique product. Kampot pepper also has the to-date only Geographical Indication label in Cambodia, a recognition of its inimitable practices that lead to the exquisite taste.

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To ensure best quality, much of the processes in Cambodia are still done by hand: picking, drying and sorting the pepper corns, making sure no debris enters the lots, etc. The geographical indication is useful to prevent competitors from making false claims, but it requires a lot of bureaucratic organization: each “real” Kampot pepper package will have on its label an indication of where and when it was produced, thus allowing for full traceability.
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Fun facts about pepper:

  • All four colors come from the same grain. Green pepper is harvested unripe, red is harvested just ripe, black is dried on the stalk, and white pepper comes from rubbing off the outmost layer of the red pepper corn.
  • Harking back to the times when pepper corns were luxury goods, the Dutch term for “crazy expensive” is “peperduur” (“pepper expensive”).
  • Today, Vietnam is the largest pepper producer, providing over 30% of global consumption.
  • When the Arabs dominated the spice trade, they would make up stories about dragons or venomous snakes guarding pepper plantations to keep competitors away.
  • In per value terms, pepper tends to be the most-traded spice overall.

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Flashback to Cambodia: Of Land Titling and Land Grabbing

When we visited the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR), they received us with smiles full of passion, but also visibly exhausted. In this country, trying to ensure the protection of political, economic and social rights with a staff of six and a minuscule budget could seem like a quixotic battle. One of the issues of greatest concern to them is the ongoing lack of land titles, and the subsequent uncertainty and missing legal recourses for subsistence farmers that are being replaced by powerful agribusinesses.

The issue of land titles emerged, as so many of Cambodia’s woes, during the Khmer Rouge period. The forced collectivization and ruthless shift to an agrarian socialist utopia obliterated private claims to land; during their time of rule, between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge also destroyed all land records, leaving no documentary trail of who owned what before the period of upheaval.
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Once the Khmer Rouge rule – which also killed around 1.7 million people through starvation, disease and political executions – was over, people scrambled to settle wherever they could and begin a new life in the wake of immense tragedy. Often having relocated multiple times with the clothes they were wearing as only possessions, official documentation was unheard of. This made – and makes – the settling of disputes over land extremely complicated.

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In 2001, the “Land Law” of Cambodia was passed, which allows any person that had been living peacefully on a piece of land for five years to apply for a land title. A second part of the law, however, was the one authorizing “economic land concessions”, where governmentally-owned land can be leased to corporations (mainly agri-businesses) for a period of up to 99 years. Furthermore, “social land concessions” are supposed to transfer state-held land to disadvantaged and poor communities, and “communal land titling” theoretically allows for indigenous communities to apply for a communal rather than a private title.

In theory, at least, Cambodia thus has the legal framework in place to overcome the legal uncertainty regarding land titling. Also, this issue has been in the focus of donor countries, and development agencies and NGOs both have initiated projects that support land titling. Yet, particularly individual land titling is a sisyphus-esque task which takes considerable amounts of time, such that only parts of the country have yet been reached. At the same time, economic land concessions go forth on land that could have also been claimed as individually owned – since there has been no formal assessment of what really is “state-owned land”, in many instances land concessions formalize ownership by default. It thus seems to be a “first come-first served” system, where whoever shows up first with a claim on a piece of land is likely to be heard.

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This makes the decision where individual land titling efforts are being initiated all the more relevant. An interesting policy brief by the University of Berne has contrasted the areas of land titling projects with those that economic concessions are ongoing. Lo and behold the map:

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As they explain, there are clear advantages for starting systematic land titling initiatives in relatively uncontested areas: the political pressure is less, accommodation of economic interests within an area can contribute to economic development, success is more likely, and since land titling employees are often rewarded by number of titles or area covered,  there are also strong internal incentives to start in densely populated but uncontested areas where titles are already de-facto existing.

However, this completely contradicts the presumed purpose of systematic land titling, namely the protection of individual social and economic rights in the face of powerful contrary interests. Stories abound of farmers and property owners that were disowned and resettled due to an economic land concession without legal recourse because they had no official claim to the land they had settled on or bought from a previous settler.

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Similarly, the social and communal land transfer options laid out in law have had very limited success. According to reports, only 1% of concessions of state-owned land were of the social variety, while the overwhelming majority was given to companies. Furthermore, the fact that communal land titling is restricted to indigenous communities excludes many groups of Cambodians that use land collectively, for example as pasture land. Also, bureaucratic hurdles mean that only a handful of communal land titles have been granted so far.

Thus, I feel like the authors of the policy brief have a good point when they argue that implementing land titling initiatives is not enough – it needs to be targeted to where it can actually make an impact on people’s rights and livelihoods. This also means altering metrics of success:

If meant to enhance tenure, titling campaigns require metrics that accurately reflect that aim. “Impact” in such a context would mean safeguarding vulnerable land users’ access to resources, and might draw on conflict- rather than area-based indicators.

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Further reading, if you are interested, could be the reports of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Human Rights of 2007 and 2012.


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Climate Change is Felt in Costa Rica! An Example from Coffee Producers.

This is supposed to be the beginning of the rainy season. Normally, this means sunny mornings and a few hours of rain in the afternoon (sometimes real deluges) in the afternoon. But normally doesn’t exist here anymore.

“We have never had overcast mornings until a couple of years ago. Now I feel like I am back in Europe. Why did I even leave?” – “Days that it is raining from morning on have been pretty rare in the past.” – “Flooding in Costa Rica prompts evacuation of more than 450 people.” – “Normally, it should have rained consistently in June. But in the last two weeks we haven’t seen a drop of rain, and the plants are starting to feel it.”

These are all sentiments I have heard in the last 2 weeks. On one side of the country, the heavy rains cause floods and landslides blocking roads. Behind the mountains, coffee farms are baking in the sun. In the last three days, I have noticed temperature fluctuations of more than 10 degrees. And particularly when we visited a coffee farm today, the impact on local livelihoods is ever-present.

“The climate is driving us crazy. Everything is different. You can’t rely on anything,” says our guide and general manager of the cooperative we are visiting, Roberto Mara from Coopedota. Let me list some of the examples that he pointed to… 

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“Do you see the two different sizes of coffee cherries? For some reason, we don’t understand why, the plant flowered at different points in time and now has a vast variety of size and ripeness of cherries. Not only does this make it harder and more time-intensive to harvest, it also puts extra stress on the plant that has to feed nutrients to its fruit much longer. Normally, after the cherries are ripe it would store nutrients for recovery and preparation for the next growth season. You mark my words, this plant will be a disaster next year.”

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“There is even a ripe cherry here. And see that bush? A branch with a flower and good-sized cherries at the same time. It’s madness.”

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“We have figured out that renovating our coffee plantations by replacing old bushes with new ones can be helpful. It’s easier for young plants to adapt to these new conditions; the older ones falter. You just can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Before, newly planted bushes would take 3 to 4 years before bearing fruit, but now we have seen them do it after as little time as 1 year. So the higher temperatures bring constant surprises.”

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“We are now experimenting with new varieties that are more resistant to heat and to coffee rust, for which conditions right now (sunny, windy and dry) are just perfect. But the varieties on offer often have robusta genetical traits. We are defined as high-quality, 100% arabica coffee with a specific taste. If we lose that characteristic, we might as well go out of business, because we can’t compete with the quantity that Brazil or Vietnam are churning out.”

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“Normally, we produce between 1500 and 1800 meters. Now, because of the heat, farmers are moving up all the way to 2000 meters. The elevation is responsible for coffee acidity, one of the main quality characteristics of specialty coffee. Now it’s a real gamble at which elevation you will get the traits you are looking for.”

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“Two bushes from the same variety, next to each other, with the exact same treatment, will behave totally differently. It is really difficult to give our producers advice on what to do because we can’t predict results on their farms.”
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“We started using more shade trees, but even this practice depends on weather patterns. If it rains more, too much shade seriously decreases yield and growth, particularly in small plants. In this plantation, with this sun, it ended up working well with the amount of shade we have, but if we had the usual rain, it might be a struggle.”

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“In the experimental plot with our new plants, we ended up cutting all the trees down because we expected rain and didn’t want to jeopardize growth. Had we known…” [He sighs].

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“Now we will probably plant some banana trees because their leaves develop very quickly and can provide shade cover rapidly. The poros, the nitrogen-fixing trees we just cut down, will take a while to recover.”


Can you imagine how it is to live off the land and weather, year to year, and suddenly and quickly realize that many of the rules of thumb passed down from your ancestors are without value? Worse, can you imagine that even science and research can only help in limited ways since experimental results cannot be guaranteed to be replicated? Can you imagine that a sunny day that is supposed to be rainy is not a cause of joy like for us office workers, but rather another day that threatens your existence?

It’s easy to talk about climate change’s impacts on agriculture in an abstract way, but seeing the exasperation in the eyes of those trying desperately to adapt in time truly brings the message home.


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Costa Rica’s Avocado Crisis

My usual fruit vendor smiles at me regretfully. “You want avocados? Well, we have some. The problem – they are veery expensive.” Instinctively, this comes as no surprise to my German brain – in Europe good avocados are a luxury good with few equals. But then I check this thought process: we are in Central America! Just last week I bought avocados for half the price he is quoting me!

The avocado scarcity is showing its effects.

Since May, the Costa Rican government has prohibited the import of avocados from 9 countries that are affected by sun blotch. According to the country’s Plant Health Service (SFE), imported avocados could also introduce the disease in the territory and endanger national production. The agency assured that it was working on finding alternative sources to satisfy demand – an important aspect since among the 9 countries is Mexico, the single-largest importer of avocados to Costa Rica.

The ban that was announced around 6 weeks ago has now sparked intense controversy at the political level as stocks of Hass avocados are depleting without alternatives in place, leading traders to add hefty price premiums to each box.

Costa Rica has around 900 avocado producers that jointly produce around 2’000 metric tons per year, not nearly enough to replace the ca. 12’000 tons imported each year from Mexico. In addition, the local varieties don’t measure up in taste and quality – one variety is much larger than Hass avocados and has a rather watered-down taste, whereas the darker-skinned ones have a much shorter lifespan than their Mexican counterparts, according to my fruit dealer.

Monster avocado!!

A photo posted by Janina Grabs (@janina_grabs) on

Thus, the measure understandably has traders, food businesses and consumers up in arms, with many unable to understand what initiated the import ban. Word on the street is that “sun blotch has existed in Mexico for 30 years, and it’s never been a problem. The authorities have been unable to show any scientific evidence supporting their recent decision”. There are even rumors that part of the motivation may be the repaying of political favors to supporters of the current government with clear economic interests. Already, campaigns like the one below stress that consumers should support local production through purchasing national avocados.

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In response to the disruption in their supply chains, food chains such as Subway have changed their offers, taking avocado out of their offer of ingredients. A publicity stunt saw the Minister of Information march up to a store, purchase three avocados outside the door and offer them to the employees, asking them to make him a sandwich with avocados and thereby dispel the myth of non-availability. There is now also a Facebook group dedicated to donating avocados to the food giant.

It’s a tough call – has the previous government been lax in their implementation of phytosanitary precautions? The Chamber of Exporters and Importers of Perishable Products (CEIPP) likes to point out that of all other countries, only New Zealand has also banned Mexican avocados. But is that to say that Costa Rica is too cautious or that other countries are too foolhardy? Many other nations also don’t grow avocados and would thus be less worried about importing a disease.

Then, from a food miles perspective it is certainly more efficient to focus on Costa Rican produce. However, as my fruit dealer said, “is our country now like Cuba or Venezuela where we are told which things to buy?” If there is a difference in product, who should have the prerogative to limit the choice set?

Ultimately, as a member of the WTO, Costa Rica might be in trouble if it truly cannot show a scientific basis for its import ban of avocados, since such behavior could be interpreted as a non-tariff barrier and Mexico could take action through the WTO institutions. While phytosanitary measures have a bit more leeway, they are theoretically only allowed for a limited time without solid scientific grounding.

We will see whether the governmental decision endures the public outrage even that long. I certainly hope that my guacamole cravings will soon be fulfilled again.


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A Transcontinental Farmers’ Market: Exclusive Interview with Kenneth Lander from THRIVE Farmers

One of my favorite things about writing this blog is that it enables me to have really interesting conversations with really interesting people. Case in point: when I visited Monteverde, I knew that this was where Kenneth Lander, the co-founder of one of the most interesting business models in the coffee world out there, had his farm. A couple of e-mail back and forths and one phone call later, we sat round his kitchen table overlooking the Monteverde cloud forest and talked about the challenges of coffee farming and marketing and the new approach THRIVE is taking. By far one of my favorite afternoons in Costa Rica. You can find a shortened version of this interview over at Food Tank, but this is the unabridged one. Enjoy!

Coffee is the product with the longest fair trade history and the greatest proliferation of sustainability labels. Yet, these efforts have largely failed to lift small-scale producers out of poverty. THRIVE Farmers International has an ambitious goal: to fundamentally revolutionize the mainstream supply chain with its many middlemen and strong reliance on the volatile commodity markets. It supports farmers in maintaining ownership of their harvest until it is sold to the final purchaser. By participating at the end of the chain where their coffee has the highest value, farmers can retain up to 10x more net income than those in conventional markets. We sat down with THRIVE co-founder Kenneth Lander at his coffee farm in Monteverde, Costa Rica, to explore the potential of this innovative business model to shake up the traditional coffee trade.

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JG: How do you explain to consumers what differentiates THRIVE from other sustainable schemes such as Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance?

KL: In fact, this is one of our greatest challenges because, as Seth Godin just wrote, “putting on a new pair of glasses, seeing the world or hearing the world or understanding the world in a new way is a lot more work than merely cruising through a typical day.” We wholeheartedly support Fairtrade, but we are something different. At the end of the day, we are not about trying to create a floor that prevents a farmer from going upside down on things. We are an economic model, we want the farmer to make a sustainable living, take the next step, and become an entrepreneur. Everything we do is about cultivating quality, from the plant all the way to creating synergies with other ideas and projects.

We are not trade; we are relationship. We are not a commodities market; we are a farmers’ market. A consumer only needs to understand that we work like their local farmers’ market, except that these farmers are an ocean away.

We have a gift for telling a story; that is what we do best.

[Chick-Fil-A is the largest customer of THRIVE, and have done a great job at explaining farmer direct supply chains. Check it out before continuing if you are more interested in the model.]

JG: To an outsider, your business model sounds surprisingly straightforward. Why do you think nobody has traded coffee this way before THRIVE did?

KL: The reason that nobody has thought about it before is that the people who have the ability to change the economies of coffee already have their models, their Titanics built, and it is really hard to turn a ship of that size around. Our company was designed from the ground up to think about economic sustainability of farmers first. We don’t do a deal with a customer unless it works for the farmer and provides him with a sustainable livelihood. The idea of sharing revenue, and creating a fixed revenue stream for farmers based on the final product – It’s a completely different way of thinking.

Would you do a business where some years you make no money because your costs of production are too high? Of course not! So why would you expect that of a farmer?

Also, technology has changed things. We couldn’t have done THRIVE 10 years ago. Today, we can track where a coffee is in the value chain. A farmer now can actually see where his coffee is going and how much a cup of it is selling for. One thing that is core to who we are is that we try to harness any opportunity to create channels of communication, including through Skype calls, videos and the like. This is not about pictures of coffee berries on trees and a nice picture of a farmer standing next to his plant. We feel that everyone in the value chain should be invested in the relationship, and we try to create these possibilities for farmers to engage as much as possible.

JG: How have your competitors reacted? Has THRIVE become a big threat in the marketplace?

KL: I don’t think we are there yet, and I hope we won’t see that in the future either. Any coop or micromill will tell you that diversification is important and that you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. THRIVE is just an egg that is a little more golden than the rest. What we would like to see is that more people align with the way we think about things, and hopefully do more. If more people think “maybe THRIVE has a point. Maybe we shouldn’t base our business upon the commodity market, and rather base it on what we can sell it for, and make relationships with farmers and ensure that they have a consistent revenue year by year that they can live by, because that will help sustain our supply chain,” that would be a good thing. The idea is certainly not below the radar now.

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JG: A 2013 New York Times piece questioned the scalability of your model due to the long delays in payment of 6-12 months after harvest, arguing that “there’s not the right balance between when the farmer needs the money and when the farmer receives the money”. How do you address this challenge?

KL: That was Carlos Vargas from Coopetarrazu, yet last year Coopetarrazu was one of our biggest providers. Of course it works. It did scale. We are in over 1,800 locations in the United States. We have providers in country of Central America right now except for Mexico, and we are also in Burundi and hope to be in East Africa this year. And there were 2 reasons it scaled: one, we tapped into bigger organizations like Coopetarrazu that already had the financing for the farmers in place, and two, we redefined our system to a revenue-sharing model so that now we are able to tap into financing that allows the farmer to get a large part of the revenue share at the time the coffee is exported, which matches what the normal market does. The real power of the model will be that over time, as we expand our small farmer base, we will tap into partnerships that can bring financing back to the fruit level, but we are not there yet. We will get there.

JG: THRIVE focuses on the high-quality specialty coffee market where consumers readily pay high price premiums for outstanding products. Yet, only 10 – 15% of world coffee production can compete in the specialty market. Do you see potential for scalability beyond the specialty coffee niche?

KL: Sure, it just depends on how you want to scale it. We are not talking about monoculture robusta farming in Brazil or Vietnam at a massive scale. But I would argue that on the higher end of commercial coffee – the pretty good Arabicas – the impact of the model could be even higher, because you are creating a full-crop solution. The real power of our model is the fact that the higher you go up in score, specialty coffee creates its own marketplace and the movement of the commodity market tends to be minimized. When you start sliding down the range, even high-end commercial coffee prices will follow commodity price movements. A farmer might have a small lot of high-grade specialty coffee, but the rest of his farm is producing coffee at the high end of commercial quality. I know a lot of people that drink that coffee every day and those companies are paying a substantial amount for that coffee. Yet, the farmer’s price is still highly manipulated by price fluctuations.

What if you had a way to have a coffee that everybody drinks and enjoys and pays a good price for and put it in a system that links farmer revenues to consumer prices? There is still huge potential there, and there are a lot of farmers, big and small, that fit into this model.

JG: Beyond ensuring economic stability, how do you incorporate the other two pillars of sustainability, namely environmental and social aspects?

KL: If I were to stand up at any conference, and have my say, I would stress that it is really fun to talk about the environmental piece, and the social piece, but a farmer won’t care about these things until he can feed his family. Period. If we don’t deal with that issue head-on, we’ll never get the traction we need on the other two. We see examples of micromills that have tunneled through the value chain, connected with a boutique roaster and achieved a stable price that now see the value in composting and taking care of the people that work for them because now they want to reinvest in their company. Now it is a viable business. Our point of entry will always be from the economic side, and then it gets powerful, because farmers do want to take care of their watershed and ecosystems, they just sometimes don’t have the resources to look into the future because they are under so much short-term economic stress. We would however love to partner up with environmental projects and offer a solid marketing base.

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JG: Do you observe that your customers are willing to pay for environmental attributes of their coffee, or is quality their main priority?

KL: If the quality is not there, it doesn’t matter. But there is no reason why you shouldn’t do both. In fact, good agricultural practices create better tissue in the plant, which creates better cherries. But will people pay for it? I think people are willing to do so if it also helps them meet an agenda. If you have a multinational company that is looking for a good quality product that is verifiable, truly impactful on the three aspects of sustainability and that complies with your stated values, I think they are willing to pay more, because they are willing to allocate resources to drink a coffee that is truly sustaining farmers and their communities for the long term.

JG: Where do you see the world of specialty coffee, and THRIVE’s position in it, in 10 years?

KL: As you go into this industry, it’s very small with a lot of money, and there is a lot of talk about direct relationships, decoupling from the commodity market, lots of talk about the ‘thin months’ and sustainable livelihoods, lots of talk about the fact that if we don’t do something, there won’t be any specialty coffee in the coming years. At some point, the balances will tip and people will have to realize that they have to rethink how they engage with farmers in order to ensure that they actually have a large enough supply base. I think THRIVE will be seen in the future as one of those companies that was one of the first to act at scale. We hope to continue to be a thought leader in that area. If we have learned one thing, it is that we need to be collaborative and invite other people and be open to these kinds of conversations.

Fascinating, no? What else would you like to know from THRIVE? Maybe you can find it on their website or the Coffee With a Story site. There, you can even learn more about and connect with some of the participating farmers! 


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Things I’ve … Written!

Hello? Is anybody still out there? I have to give a heartfelt apology for my absence recently, but it came with much work, much travels, and much activity that have left me scrambling to tend to my little blog. However, I am back now, and hopefully for good! The content and intensity of this blog has always fluctuated with my other life plans, so I hope you readers will understand.

However, the fact that this space has been quiet does not mean that I have not been writing, quite the opposite! In fact, I got in touch with Food Tank and have been regularly contributing pieces for them. Here are the ones that have gone online so far:

High Food Prices and Obesity in Costa Rica

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… in which I wonder about the connection between food prices in Costa Rican supermarkets, the attractiveness of fast food and the rates of obesity in the country.

Costa Rica’s Pineapple Monopoly Not So Sweet

A photo posted by Janina Grabs (@janina_grabs) on

… where I highlight the increasingly serious environmental issues the pineapple industry in Costa Rica is facing.

Las Lajas: The Micro-Coffee Mill Proving that Small Is Beautiful

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… in which I share my visit to an innovative microenterprise at the forefront of Costa Rica’s coffee revolution.

And in other news…. I just published a paper based on my Master’s thesis! It discusses the potential rebound effects of switching to vegetarianism and can be downloaded under this link for free until July 8th! Take advantage!

Screen Shot 2015-06-06 at 6.03.33 AMThis much so far; I also just returned from a study trip to Cambodia where we learned a lot about the local land grabbing issues and I am working on a post on that too; plus, an exclusive interview with an amazing coffee business is coming up! Happy reading for now!

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