The Coffee Paradox
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Date: 13 October, 2006

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'It would be great to think that the power brokers might read this and wake up and smell the coffee.'



How much has the latte revolution benefited farmers? Charlotte Haines Lyon on The Coffee Paradox.

Before I start, I should say that most of this review was conducted during one of three visits to various coffee houses. One I confess was Starbucks. Whilst I like my local cafes’ individuality there is no Fair Trade coffee, it is smoky and the decaf lattes just aren’t as mellow as Starbucks.

Anyway as a guilty Starbucks patron, I was fascinated to read about the Coffee Paradox. 2.25 billion cups of coffee are downed on a daily basis around the globe. The paradox is that while there is a “coffee boom” in consuming countries, there is a “coffee crisis” in producing countries.

According to Daviron and Ponte there is a paradox within the paradox; we are awash with low quality coffee and whilst there is an upsurge in sales of high quality coffee there is a dire shortage of it.

The book starts with a comprehensive history of the methods of coffee production – including how the two flat seeds (the bean) have been extracted from the coffee cherry, the impact of slavery on the industry, and how production, selling and transportation has changed.


The sheer number of steps involved from tree to mug goes some way to explaining the disparity of the cost of my coffee and the price the farmer receives. Only a little though. The added value at the consumer end such as ambience and service are clouding the issue of the value of the bean.

Daviron and Ponte assess the result of market liberalization since the end of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989. Many who have fought for Fair Trade have often argued that the end of this regime, has impoverished farmers whilst enriching the multinationals.

It seems that things aren’t that simple. The authors shine spotlights on three producing countries as they analyse the success of their approaches since 1989. Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania have responded in very different ways, which in turn have affected the lives of their producers.

For example, Ethiopia has part liberalization. One price is paid for coffee regardless of quality. However there are strict local controls, preventing any mixing from different regions. Therefore Ethiopian coffee is now sought for its distinct tastes.

To complicate matters, regional distinction whilst providing a unique selling point to some is not always popular. Brands such as Lavazza want their name known rather than the country of origin.

Strange as it might seem, companies such as Starbucks might be benefiting the producers, as they are happy to market distinct coffees within their houses. In fact Starbucks is awarded with the accolade for decommoditizing coffee by increasing the speciality coffee market.

But before I champion Starbucks et al too much, Daviron and Ponte point out the latte revolution on the whole, has done little to benefit to the producers. There has been more of an increase in milk and syrup consumption than of coffee.

These same ingredients also mean that the quality of coffee isn’t necessarily that important as they dilute the taste. The need for premiums being paid thus being reduced, whilst the cost of a mug is increased by smells, service and sofas. None of the latter of course benefits the farmer.

Fair Trade

Fair Trade and other such sustainable coffee movements also come under scrutiny. Apparently Fair Trade is the most beneficial to the farmer. Although pertinent questions are raised regarding its true sustainability due to over supply and pressure on price. It is this chapter and the last that are the most interesting to read.

Is sustainable coffee the answer to guilt free coffee? Daviron and Ponte think so. They put forward a detailed strategy, including enforced transparency in the consuming countries. Customers should understand where their coffee comes from and the consequences of their consumption.

It is also suggested there needs to be some education so we do appreciate quality coffee over and above the accompanying flavours and vibes. There are plans for a “Sustainable Coffee Cooperation Fund to ensure standards and support small farmers alongside a push for partial re-regulation in producing countries.

All this sounds plausible albeit a little idealistic. It would be great to think that the power brokers might read this and wake up and smell the coffee. In the meantime the book provides a substantial education for us consumers.

With some knowledge we might at least be able to initiate some change. After all it was people like us that made Fair Trade coffee a mainstream success.

The Coffee Paradox
Benoit Daviron and Stefano Ponte
Zed Books £16.95
320 pp

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