Fair Trade Coffee
03. May 2012
It's hard to imagine Berlin's hotels and restaurants without these two. Not only have they introduced the German capital to Austrian coffee house culture, they're also responsible for importing the best coffee beans in the world. Elisabeth and Wilhelm Andraschko are constantly on the scout for new and better beans and they're currently roasting five different coffee blends in Kreuzberg. We spoke to them about contemporary coffee farming and the truth behind Fairtrade labels.
Let's talk about the Fairtrade label. Was it called to life because the coffee industry wasn't paying their workers enough?
We tend to think that all of these labels are the same. You can't compare the coffee industry with the textile industry. You don't have inhumane conditions like child labor in the coffee industry.
Is child labor a critical factor for the industry because children provide cheap labor? Or do families depend on the children helping out?
Child labor is being handled differently nowadays. Of course, there are limits, like when there are health hazards involved or when children stop going to school. I know that it's common in Guatemala and other Central American countries for young boys to go coffee picking instead of going to school.
In these countries, where there are systems of farming cooperatives, you have no control over the fact that there might be 15 year olds working on the fields. But you'll just as well have the whole family harvesting grapes in Austria during wine harvest season. It's a whole other story when children are employed for cheap labor by larger economical enterprises. In those cases, they're forced to carry heavy loads and can't go to school. It's important to draw the line here. We only buy from farmers that grow premium quality coffee, which means that their pickers know what they're doing.
What does that mean exactly?
The beans have to be plucked off the coffee trees correctly. There is only a small time slot for harvesting the beans. The pickers have to work fast and precise to prevent the ripe cherries from fermenting on the trees, which will flaw the product. You can only make good coffee with well-trained pickers. If you're well-trained, you will be payed accordingly. If coffee farmers refuse to meet the criteria for a certificate, there should be consequences for that, without exception. But the fact of the matter is: How is one institution supposed to control every industry in the world? That's simply impossible. It would take a Chinese army.
If I, the end consumer, pick up a pack of Fairtrade coffee, the certificate suggests that the resources are being dealt with responsibly. But now you're saying it's incontrollable?
It's just physically impossible. There would need to be more personnel.
So why is the industry giving out these certificates when there really isn't a way to control what's behind it?
It's an arrangement between those issuing the certificates and those that want to be issued one. For example: In Kenia, we negotiated with a farm that adheres to the most modern principles. Their quality and revenues are twice as high as those of the cooperative next door. They're only a little smallholder cooperative, each farmer owns around 100 coffee trees next to his other sources of income, like goat herding for example. This cooperative profits from its Fairtrade seal because Fairtrade offers guaranteed absorption.
...Because consumers will dig deeper into their pockets when they're feeling emotional?
It's a method for getting a higher price per kilo and for keeping up a steady access to the market. This is where it begins to get problematic. I'm only talking about coffee now – of course we want fair trade everywhere. Take Cup of Excellence, for example – it's the US's answer to Fairtrade. Cup of Excellence motivates farmers to produce high-quality crops. A farmer that produces high-quality produce for Cup Of Excellence can earn as much as 10 to 50 times more per kilo, compared to Fairtrade's absorption guarantee.
There's a farm in Nicaragua that was very poor just a couple of years ago. But they educated themselves, expanded the farm and are now making good profit because they improved the quality of their working process.
How exactly do you go about improving your working process?
First of all, you need to know which plants you're going to grow and when. You should know which micro climate you're dealing with and what your soil is like. Good quality requires a smart treatment of nature. You'll want to harvest again and again, so you have to water your plants in a way that the soil won't begin to erode. You have to recognize the best places on your farm for a rewarding harvest. Then, you have to plant the right plants. It takes a good two to three years to get all of that right.
Some big coffee brands mix different quality blends together to make one affordable coffee blend...
I generally believe that comestibles weren't meant for industrial production. We need manufacturers that love working with food. The Müller-Brot scadal is a perfect example. Two weeks into the scandal, they were still having hygiene problems. If you have thousands of people working in a business, they won't love your product. It might work with screws or cars but not with the things we put into our mouths. You can see the results of industrical coffee farming on farms in Costa Rica or Brazil, where there is only monocultural farming without the use of shade trees. We only purchase coffee that has been grown using shade trees because this way the plants grow slower and temperatures won't drop as drastically at night.
And we only buy coffee that is hand-harvested. That's another huge difference between organic and fair trade seals. Fairtrade doesn't require 100 per cent fair trade, just a very low percentage.
So Tchibo prints a Fairtrade label on its coffee although only 9 per cent of its coffee (see last week's Taz) actually comes from certified fair farming?
So they're abusing the certificate to up their retail prices?
That's why America responded with direct trade. We're only going to buy good quality produce, so farmers will want to provide us with high quality produce. We all know each other and we'll sit down and have a cup of coffee together. Of course we'd never buy from someone who was working with toxic chemicals or employing children. And we want our farms to have trees. Not just because they make for better quality crops – there's just nothing more beautiful than a coffee farm with trees.
What happens when one of your long term business partners screws up?
Then they'll get kicked off the market permanently. The Speciality coffee market is so small. It's tiny. We all know each other.
(interview: emh; fotos: Esther Suave/ HiPi)
(interview: emh; fotos: Esther Suave/ HiPi)