Friday, September 09, 2005

Naked Coffee

In the introduction to his book Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs says, "The title means exactly what the words say: NAKED Lunch - a frozen moment where everyone sees what is on the end of every fork."

Sometimes the "fork" is a cup of coffee. I was down in Guatemala a decade or so ago. There I learned that average Guatemalans don't ever get to drink their own coffee. It is too expensive. Less than 1% of the population makes more than $500 a year. American importers have paid as high as $2 and as low as $0.30 a pound for the coffee. Even 30 cents is a huge amount for most Guatemalans. That really floored me. I just couldn't believe that they didn't even get to enjoy their most famous product. Then I saw something else. A man heading out to work to spray pesticides on the coffee plants. He had a big vat of poison strapped to his back with a spray hose attached. He was just wearing plain clothes. Just a cloth t-shirt and pants. No protective gear of any sort. No respirator. There's no OSHA in Guatemala. I'm sure he'd never been told that the chemicals he was carrying were harmful to him as well, or been given any instructions on how to avoid getting those chemicals in his community's drinking water...

Naked coffee... that frozen moment where you see exactly what is in your cup. Maxwell House, Folgers, Starbucks... these companies pay the barest minimum they can for their coffee, and they knowingly encourage practices like unsafe pesticide use. Lest you think this is somehow justified, consider that a few years back, growers were getting around $2 a pound for their beans, but due to changes in the market they now make around 30 cents a pound. Are you paying 85% less for your coffee than you were a few years ago? No, because the consumer is getting exploited along with the grower. While corporate coffee gets a huge increase in profits, the consumer gets screwed, and the growers get less than they need to survive. If you buy coffee from these companies you're paying for this to continue.

My new hero is Dean Cycon. Dean makes it really easy to make a moral stand in a cup of coffee. Dean ONLY sells fairly traded, organic, shade grown coffee.

A quick explanation of what that means. Fair Trade sets a minimum price cap on what the grower gets paid (currently $1.41 for organic, as opposed to the 30 cents Starbucks etc. pay). That's just the start of what Fair Trade does, but essentially it means if your coffee has the fair trade designation, you can be reasonably sure that the growers aren't being exploited. Organic means (and here there are many standards and definitions, but generally speaking...) that the coffee was grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers. It is good to see because you know the grower wasn't poisoning themselves or their community to grow the coffee, and you know you aren't drinking trace amounts of pesticides. Shade grown does organic one better. It means the coffee is grown while disrupting the local flora and fauna as little as possible. It means growing with the environment. Just because something is organic doesn't mean there wasn't a forest clearcut to create a field to plant the coffee in.

As I said before, though, Dean makes it easy to be moral. You should be buying nothing but organic, shade grown, Fair Trade coffees because it is the right thing to do. But sadly, too many people don't really care what's on the end of their fork. As long as something is cheap and convenient it really doesn't matter who suffered to get something into your mouth. And to be honest with you, even though I've seen that suffering first hand, I need that cup of coffee. If Starbucks is the only thing around, I'll get my coffee there because caffiene withdrawals will render me nonfunctional if I don't. And if money is tight, I'll go with the non-organic products to save a buck.

But Dean's Beans don't cost any more than other specialty coffees, at least at the Belfast Coop where I shop. And if one cares nothing about the rest of the world, and only about one's own pleasure, they still win with Dean's Beans. You can compare for yourself. Take any brand of coffee that has organic and shade grown versions and do a taste-test with the non-organic options. Organic coffee tastes better than non-organic. It is noticably richer, fuller. Shade-grown coffee tastes that much better again than ordinary organic.

Dean's Beans make the best coffee I've ever had. Nothing else will do for me now. I had a few pounds of Alta Dena, which is darn good coffee, but I gave that to my sister. I even carry some ground up beans with me when I leave town so I can make my own when I'm away from Belfast (in the base of my Planetary Designs French Press mug, of course!). If you're a friend, relative or student of mine, let me know and I'll be happy to pick some up for you. Otherwise, you can find a Deans Beans reseller near you, or order beans here.

Hurricane Katrina did a number on New Orleans. Although we didn't here about it much in the news in the US, Hurricane Stan has done much, much more damage to Guatemala, El Salvador and other Latin American countries than Katrina did to NOLA. Sadly, I think many of us have overdosed on compassion, and don't have much left over. But just by buying Fair Trade coffees exclusively you are doing something. You are helping. At least it's a start!