The hidden cost of coffee

By Sierra Love

While queuing up at Tim Hortons or Starbucks may be routine for most students, the implications of bringing coffee to North America is often far from our minds– even in the line-up. Although Canada and the United States consume two out of five cups of the world’s total, we are by and large ignorant of the coffee supply chain.

Giovanni de Paz, a fourth-generation Guatemalan coffee farmer, came to the University of Calgary on Nov. 2 to discuss the political, economic, environmental and social factors involved in coffee production. The event, hosted by the Latin American Studies Club and the EcoClub, was titled “Sustainable Coffee Trade: The Aspects of Coffee.”

Coffee is cultivated in the rainforest belt straddling the equator. Coffee, the seed of a fruit, is originally from Ethiopia. Since its dramatic world-wide spread, Latin America has become the dominant region of production. On de Paz’s family farm, Sierra Las Minas, they strive for quality and sustainability, so coffee cultivation involves a tedious, labour-intensive process of selective picking from seven-foot tall shrubs in the middle of the rainforest. The procedure of roasting and packaging is completed on site and the final product is exported to Canada. It would be easy to think that this is the end of the story; however, things get a little complicated.

After crude oil, coffee is the world’s second most traded commodity. It is therefore regulated by the New York Board of Trade, an international trade body. But only green, unroasted coffee beans are regulated as such, which takes control of roasting and further processing from the hands of the bean producers. The price is set by futures markets and depends on numerous factors like supply and demand, weather patterns and, of course, market speculation, much like crude oil. Price per pound varies daily, but ranges from $0.65 to $1.50– more or less what we pay retailers for one small to medium cup of the final product. Low prices paid to farmers provides the incentive to produce low-quality, high-caffeinated beans. Which is “not just unhealthy for end consumers, but unethical,” de Paz said. These farms are often monoculture (sans rainforest) and require high inputs of fertilizer and pesticides.

Farmers not only get an unfair deal from the NYBOT, but from the Fair-Trade Labelling Organization as well.

According to de Paz, the FLO pays a flat rate of $1.27 per pound, which certainly helps to minimize risks associated with frequent price fluctuations. However, the catch is that farmers must activate their membership for an annual rate ranging U.S.$1,500-2,000 at the beginning of each season– approximately 1,200-1,500 pounds worth of production.

“A flat rate,” de Paz argued, “is translated into mediocre-quality, dark-roasted coffee for the end consumer who must add cream and sugar to have a desirable cup of coffee.”

After many transnational corporate disappointments, de Paz and his family decided to move to a direct trade business model. Direct trade allows the end consumer to enjoy coffee from farms that believe in quality first and consequently encourages farmers to practice organic, environmentally-friendly farming to deliver a sustainable and quality harvest– to a point where no double-double is needed.

Improving the organic quality of coffee is possible through production techniques, such as shade-grown cultivation, which ensure enough moisture for slow development of coffee fruit and less need for toxic pesticides. The roasting process involves less darkening of the bean to preserve its flavourful attributes. Mildred Messenger, 72, a Sierra Las Minas client said, “His delicious Arabica variety coffee does not increase my blood pressure due to its low levels of caffeine– which is good, considering the doctor told me to stop drinking coffee.”

de Paz emphasized that by allowing farmers to yield higher profits through direct trade, they are able to provide better employment conditions in rural coffee regions across Guatemala. In the long term, such a realization may even slow the rate of illegal northward immigration from Central America to the U.S. and Canada.

Undeniably, coffee consumption plays an energizing role in our community. Take MacEwan Hall, from the StÖr to A&W– never mind the opening of a second Tim Hortons– our impact on coffee production is significant. Dedicating a few moments of thought to the implications of our consumption patterns may help change the direction of the industry. Be it anti-transnational sentiment, environmental concern or social altruism for communities many miles away, we as students should not take the present model as the best just because it facilitates the biggest, fastest and cheapest fix.

de Paz has formed a Coffee Lounge Club in Calgary to display Latte Art to consumers of high-quality coffee and promote the creation of jobs here in Canada as Baristas and Coffee Cupper Professionals, positions in high demand due to the rise of specialty coffee. He also provides research internships in his farm in Guatemala. Contact him at


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