This morning I had roughly three cups of coffee. It’s safe to say it was a rough night and a more challenging morning. Many people drink coffee every day, but many fewer people wonder where they coffee they drink comes from? Who does this coffee come from? What are the consequences of this? The current system of international food system separates consumer so far from producer that it makes it easy not to even wonder about these questions. But as a sociologist, I like to ask these kinds of questions, and when I get the chance, I like to bring these ideas up in casual conversation.
Today our class discussed what can be called “the industrial agrifood business” I’ll explain this briefly by contrasting the notion with a short story from my childhood.
My family used to garden. We would grow corn, tomatoes. We had cucumbers, squash, watermelon. The entire garden was grown on a small patch of land – perhaps 4 foot by 8 or so. We grew a lot, and we used some tricks to make sure the plants grew and pests and weeds did not. I can’t be 100% certain that our garden was perfectly eco-friendly, but I am sure that we tried our best.
But, little farms like this cannot support a whole family, let alone a whole country or international food system. So the answer to that predicament is industrial, mass-produced foods. Foods like coffee and tea are produced on large plantations and then shipped all over the globe, often causing unnecessary harm to the farmers that produced those crops. They are shipped to our stores and sold for very cheap, which causes the farmers to get much less than what they had anticipated. Farms which produce food for the agrifood industry often produce one crop (unlike my family who produced many vegetables).
In order to make more money, they need to produce more and more of that one crop in order to continue to sustain themselves. Producing more food drives the price down even more, making the farms even less profitable, and driving the farmers even more into debt.
Let’s return to my original question here.
Where and who does my coffee come from?
Unless I am buying fair trade coffee, my coffee is probably coming from one of many industrial coffee farms in foreign lands. These farmers are producing cash crops for us in order to make more money for themselves. As we have learned, this doesn’t always work out like they planned.
What are the consequences of my coffee drinking habit?
- Herbicides and Pesticides in industrial farms have negative effects on animals and other critters in surrounding ecosystems
- Mass produced coffee is sold cheap to me, but comes at a high financial cost to the producer, often leading them to indebtedness, if not virtual slavery.
- More Consequences
For further reading on the international food business check out these books.
Food and Society: Principles and Paradoxes, by Amy Guptil
Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, by Raj Patel