On the Ethics of the Bean

This post was written by Foodie Abroad.  Also check out Part I and Part II of her piece on decaf coffee.

During this time of economic uncertainty, it is easy to forget about the (other) important things.  However, now, more than ever, we cannot lose sight of the fact that amidst economic crisis, we are also facing both an ecological crisis and a crisis of humanity.  Indeed, setting these priorities aside is part of the reason why we got ourselves into this mess.

One of the reasons I study food (apart from loving all things delicious), is that food provides us a lens through which to study important questions.  It provides us with material grounding to take up inquiry into things that matter.  More than that, given the important role food plays biologically and socio-culturally, and the fact that real food cannot be disassociated from the ground upon which it is grown and cultivated (although we are doing our best to forget where our food comes from) studying food illuminates a direct link between social issues (hunger, obesity, labour) and environmental questions (water, soil, drought climate change).  I am simplifying here for reasons of time and space, but you get the idea.

Studying coffee is a great way to start tackling some of the biggest questions we face.  Following the supply chain from bean to beverage highlights important issues: monoculture agriculture, farm labour, food miles, distribution, fair trade, service industry labour, health and waste (how many paper cups have you thrown away today?).

In this series on the ethics of the bean, I will consider some of these questions.  What is fair trade?  Is fair trade the answer?  What does organic mean and should we be buying shade grown?  What are the implications of coffee growing on the environment and on the people who cultivate it?  What are the ethical implications of our dependence on foreign beverages?  These latter questions present no easy answer but they are important intellectual exercises that we must undertake in an effort to be conscientious coffee drinkers and more responsible global citizens.

I will add that this series is meant to be informative and to get people’s minds a brewin’.  The goal is not to scare you away from coffee drinking or paralyze you with guilt . No, indeed that is a very counter productive way of moving towards just food systems.  We are incredibly lucky that modern technologies and trade systems allow us to drink and eat products from all over the world during all seasons, but this luxury has costs that extend beyond our wallets, and we cannot forget that.

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