What’s in your coffee cup?
Augie’s Café is not like most coffee houses in downtown Chico. It’s adjacent to a house of worship, St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, at the corner of Third and Salem streets. The man who manages it, Father Peter Hansen, is the church’s priest. It’s run as a nonprofit, with proceeds going to charity, and it serves fair-trade and organic coffees exclusively. Father Hansen believes that’s the ethical thing to do.
Hansen is a tall man with a friendly smile who manages the shop from his church office, though he’s downstairs every morning for a cup of coffee. Because Augie’s is a charitable business run with an ethical concern for the people who grow the coffee, he takes changes seriously.
Organic coffee is grown in ways that are kind to the environment, he explained, and fair trade ensures that the growers are able to make a living wage from their work.
“I can’t say that this is a better cup of coffee,” Hansen said. “But it’s better for the environment and for the workers.”
Some American coffee drinkers care about such things, but not many. To coffee growers, however, many of them small cooperative farmers in Third World countries, they can make the difference between success and failure, and failure can mean impoverishment and hunger.
A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture policy change in the way coffee is certified as organic illustrates the current situation.
Under the old method of certification, large collectives of small farms would receive a blanket certification, and 20 percent of the farms would be randomly inspected each year. The changes came about when an inspection in Mexico found a farm that was not following the guidelines, instead using pesticides and storing the harvested beans in fertilizer bags.
Under the new rules, each cooperative now must be fully inspected. The problem is that the inspectors are paid according to American wage scales, $150 to $270 per day. To some farms, operating on revenues of just $2,000 a year, the new expense may make them unable to afford the organic label, forcing them to grow either less profitable, non-organic coffee or other, more profitable crops.
“You get a farmer who can’t make enough money growing coffee—they may choose to burn their crops and switch to cocaine,” Hansen said.
Hansen said Augie’s won’t change its supplier and won’t be deterred by higher prices. The coffee house already uses some coffee that is not USDA certified as organic but is backed by its supplier, BeanTrees, which specializes in coffee from Asia, Africa and Central America, as organic.
“We have our growers’ assurance, and I trust them. I know where the sources are and where [BeanTrees President Barrie Gromala] is buying from. He’s getting organic coffee, and he’s passionate about that,” Hansen said. “He’s looking to get to the goal, not all the badges and whistles.”
For his part, Gromala said the new USDA policy was hasty and likely to be revised. The original organic rules took 10 years to form, while the new regulations were dropped on growers in a knee-jerk reaction.
“The purpose of inspections is to weed out bad players,” Gromala explained. “If you find someone after two years who’s cheating, you weed them out. You don’t punish the world.”
Seventy years ago, all coffee was grown organically. Now it can come with a variety of designations, or “seals": organic, shade grown, fair trade, Rainforest Alliance or Smithsonian bird friendly, to name a few.
All these seals can become confusing, and, besides, growers can take one certification while ignoring others.
“What good is shade grown if they’re still dumping chemicals and not paying a fair wage?” Gromala asked.
What he’d like to see is a “superseal” that combines all the others under one label.
There’s another good reason to drink organic coffee, he added. Non-organic requires a pound of petroleum products to bring a coffee tree to producing age; organic takes none.