What’s the story behind your cup of coffee? Like most commodities produced in a globalized world, the answer to this question isn’t simple.
For many of us, coffee is a fundamental ingredient in our lives. It is responsible for our productivity, millions of jobs globally, billions of dollars in capital, and has kindled a complex global infrastructure to keep a steady stream of caffeine pouring into the world’s developed nations. While coffee-drinkers may trust the cute, green “fair-trade” labels on their coffee cups, the real story of coffee—and the people who are trying to change it for the better—is completely hidden from consumers. For years, the coffee industry has been in crisis mode as millions of farmers struggle to make subsistence income and climate change hampers production, while the developed world turns a blind-eye. The real story of coffee is about, “disempowerment, abuse, and rigged markets.”
Dean Cycon, the founder of Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Company, is a person committed to fundamental change in the coffee industry. A self-proclaimed “seeker of knowledge, truth, and wisdom,” Dean is a pioneer in sustainable development who sees business as an opportunity to “seek a better understanding of the dynamics of everything from racism, to ecological justice, to interpersonal and intercultural dynamics.” After a career in indigenous rights and environmental law, Dean began the first international non-profit in coffee called Coffee Kids before creating Dean’s Beans in 1993. And since its inception, his company has been an experiment to determine whether a business that puts human values before corporate values can be successful—and it has.
Dean understands the coffee industry like no other. In his 30 year-long career, he has witnessed the evolution of coffee production from every angle and has developed a clear understanding of how the current system is failing its millions of farmers. Last year, Enveritas, a sustainability non-profit, determined that 71% of the world’s coffee farmers live in extreme poverty. Like us, the quality of life for a farmer is largely dependent on income, environmental conditions, and accessibility to basic social systems such as literacy and health programs. But two important factors are trapping coffee farmers in poverty: pricing and climate.
The income of a farmer is determined by what he is paid for a pound of coffee that he produces. Theoretically, when the coffee yields are lower, the price paid for coffee should increase because of scarcity in the market and vice-versa. This is called supply and demand, but it is not the way the coffee industry operates. The price of coffee, instead, is determined by the “C-price,” a speculative value determined by the London and New York boards of trade. In this model, private investment groups arbitrarily bet on the future price of coffee, which causes volatility in the income for a farmer. Farmers may produce the same bag of coffee every day, but still experience radical income fluctuations because of individuals sitting in a board room thousands of miles away.
The coffee crisis is also an environmental crisis. Scientists predict that up to 60% of coffee-producing land will be completely unusable by 2060. Predicted increases in climate may additionally account for the loss of 72% of tree biodiversity in coffee growing regions in the future. Most importantly, coffee is now becoming increasingly at-risk for fungal disease such as Coffee Rust, which drastically reduces yields and income for farmers. In fact, coffee growing regions will bear most of the burden of food and water insecurity into the future. And this doesn’t account for the self-imposed loss of biodiversity accounted for by monoculture and pesticide use.
The coffee industry is in crisis and millions of households are at risk. In a conversation with Dean Cycon, we discuss the deeply rooted problems in the industry and open the door to discussion about the hidden world of coffee.
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This article is part of the Disempowerment, Abuse, and Rigged Markets Series, written by Adam Guillemette ‘23.