Good Food Awards

Coffee and Sustainability

Posted on Thursday, January 10th, 2013 in Blog, Home Page by goodfoodawards

A panel discussion on January 21 will bring together academics, authors, and coffee professionals to discuss how ideas about sustainability in coffee are evolving.

Sustainability is notoriously complex, embedded in deeply interdependent environmental, social, and economic contexts. And coffee, which must play convoluted games of global leap frog to get from farms into our cups, is no less tricky.

On the environmental front, there are severe consequences for poor land management and climate change, energy inputs to process and transport it, and consumer waste here in the US. The economic challenges to sustainability may be the most acute and pressing: coffee farmers and their families often have wildly fluctuating incomes and little to no control over what prices they will be paid, limited access to credit to pay for the costs of improvements, and many suffer from seasonal hunger once the harvest is over. A major purpose of certifications like Fair Trade and USDA Organic is to provide farmers with direct access to coffee buyers, to level off some of the vast insecurity that has prevailed in global coffee markets for decades. When it comes to social justice, there are many issues: historical paternalism, indigenous land rights, government infrastructure, and the great wealth disparity between coffee growers and coffee drinkers.

In the last three decades, the coffee industry—somewhat uniquely—has entwined itself with sustainability at a deep level. Fair Trade began with Mexican indigenous coffee growers and grew to be an international movement. These days, Fair Trade is both expanding and being usefully challenged and questioned by coffee roasters and their farm partners who are focusing on quality as an alternative avenue for market access and long-term survival.

There are no easy answers.

When I was writing my book Left Coast Roast, for which I interviewed 60 coffee roasters, the issue of sustainability was among the thorniest topics of conversation. But it led to some of the most interesting conversations I had with coffee roasters, in which thoughtful, passionate people were willing to grapple with their own beliefs.

I was interested in exploring how ideas about sustainability have changed in the last decade, and in hearing from both coffee roasters and academics on the issue. What is known about effective solutions? What are we still guessing at? Are quality and sustainability mutually reinforcing or do they sometimes conflict? This last question is particularly relevant to the work of the Good Food Awards.

I am grateful that the amazing folks at CUESA in San Francisco were keen to take up the topic and agreed to sponsor a panel discussion on it that would tie to the Good Food Awards presentation.

If you’ve ever grappled with these questions over a hot cup of coffee, I hope to see you there.

-Hanna Neuschwander

Coffee and Sustainability Panel Discussion

San Francisco Ferry Building
January 21, 6 pm

Coffee is a daily necessity for many of us, savored quietly in the kitchen, downed at work as a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, or sipped at a cafe among friends. With the exploding popularity of coffee in recent years, there are more options than ever, and more confusing messages about what “sustainable” means. Which coffee should we choose? In the Bay Area, you won’t find any coffee farms, but you will find local artisan roasters who are grappling with these questions, selecting their beans not only for quality and taste but also for values. Join CUESA for a discussion of the ethics behind a cup of coffee: What is its environmental footprint? Are the farmers taking care of the land? Are they getting a fair price, and what is the effect on the communities along the supply chain?

Hanna Neuschwander, author of Left Coast Roast: A Guide to the Best Coffee and Roasters from San Francisco to Seattle, will introduce the complexities of growing coffee and moving it around the globe. She will moderate the panel.


Christopher Bacon, environmental social scientist, professor at Santa Clara University, and co-author of Confronting the Coffee Crisis
Stephen Vick, quality control manager at Blue Bottle Coffee Co.
Colby Barr of Verve Coffee Roasters, 2013 Good Food Award Finalist

There will be a reception following the panel, at which Blue Bottle and Verve coffees will be available for tasting.