Friday, April 27, 2007

Melborne Academics report Oxfam coffee 'harms' poor farmers

by Caroline Overington

April 28, 2007

TWO Melbourne academics have lodged formal complaints against Oxfam Australia over the sale of Fairtrade coffee, saying it should not be promoted as helping to lift Third World producers out of poverty because growers are paid very little for their beans.

Tim Wilson, a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, and Sinclair Davidson, professor of institutional economics at RMIT University, have asked the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to investigate Oxfam, saying it is guilty of misleading or deceptive conduct under the Trade Practices Act.

Mr Wilson said there was evidence that Fairtrade products could do more harm than good for coffee producers in undeveloped nations. He cited reports alleging producers had been charged thousands of dollars to become certified Fairtrade providers and some labourers received as little as $3 a day.

In order to lodge the complaint, Mr Wilson purchased a 250g pack of Fairtrade organic decaf ground coffee from the online Oxfam shop.

"We purchased this product in good faith, with the aim of lifting people out of poverty while enjoying our favourite brew," Mr Wilson said, in his letter to ACCC chairman Graeme Samuel.

Mr Wilson and Professor Davidson have long held doubts about whether Fairtrade products help coffee, tea and cocoa producers in undeveloped nations. Sales of such products in Australia total about $8million.

The complaint to the ACCC refers to an article published in the Financial Times last September, which said Fairtrade coffee beans were "picked by workers paid below minimum wage". It claimed workers received the equivalent of $3 a day.

The coffee is sold at a premium to people concerned about Third World poverty.

The academics quote an analysis of Fairtrade, published in the US-based Cato journal, which says coffee producers in poor nations are charged $3200 to become certified Fairtrade providers. The producers' costs are therefore higher than on the open market. The Fairtrade campaign aims to manage the international coffee trade by fixing prices at $US1.26 ($1.64) per pound (454g) and eventually fixing supply.

"Oxfam says the Fairtrade coffee allows growers in developing countries to sell coffee 'at a decent price' but we don't accept that the Fairtrade system can work," Mr Wilson said.

"Our primary complaint is that this is an unsustainable system. The only sustainable mechanism is through free trade. They are artificially cooking up the international coffee trade, to promote the interests of the Fairtrade brand and the people who sign up to it."

Fairtrade coffee is stocked by Coles and the Hudson coffee chain. Origin Energy and Orica make Fairtrade coffee available to staff in their Australian offices.

Oxfam rejected the academics' claims. It is this week promoting a Fairtrade Fortnight. To mark the event, Oxfam Australia invited Costa Rican coffee farmer Guillermo Vargas to a series of lectures on Fairtrade.

Oxfam's Neil Bowker rejected criticism of the Fairtrade coffee project, saying: "It's all audited and monitored, from beginning to end, and we've got no doubts about the effectiveness."

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Java justice

originally posted by Stephanie Paige Ogburn at 11:08 AM on 12 Apr 2007

Fair Trade producers in Mexico depend heavily on organic certification to reap price premiums for both labels, and will be hurt on more than one front by the recently released USDA rule requiring them to change certification practices, researchers say. In a recent article in Salon, later followed by a post on Gristmill, Samuel Fromartz detailed the consequences of a USDA ruling that would force a radical change in the way grower groups in the global South certify their products. The USDA ruling, Fromartz writes:

Tightens organic certification requirements to such a degree that it could sharply curtail the ability of small grower co-ops to produce organic coffee -- not to mention organic bananas, cocoa, sugar and even spices.

Fromartz says he only hit the tip of the iceberg. So I hunted around a bit, seeking to find out more about how the ruling would impact producers in developing nations. I contacted Aimee Shreck and Christy Getz, two researchers who have published on organic and Fair Trade in developing nations. And notably, I got in touch with Tad Mutersbaugh, a professor of geography at the University of Kansas. Mutersbaugh's research focuses on international certification standards, and he's worked with organic and Fair Trade certified grower groups in Oaxaca, Mexico. He was familiar with the recent USDA ruling, and expressed his concern about the implications the ruling would have for small farmers in organic and Fair Trade grower groups.

Mutersbaugh made a distinction that I had not yet heard. It is written in the USDA ruling, and refers to grower groups' use of "internal inspectors" versus "external inspectors."

Internal inspectors generally come from the region they certify, but are specially educated by the larger grower organization in how to certify farms. They are usually true believers in the organic project, says Mutersbaugh, and work for low wages in order to get the job done, charging as little as $1 per inspection. In contrast, external inspectors cost $150 per day, and are also much slower.

"I once attended an external inspection where we managed to do four fields in a day (at $150/day rate) because the inspector simply could not take all of the walking," Mutersbaugh wrote in an email message. "I then went on an internal inspection where we literally ran down through a canyon and up a mountain, performing 10 inspections in a day at the cost of just $1 per inspection!"

But the USDA ruling prohibits use of internal inspectors, a move that, according to Mutersbaugh, will have dire consequences for small-scale producers. "The only way to do inspections is by using 'internal inspectors'," he said. "If external inspectors are used, the cost will be absolutely prohibitive."

Costs are a big deal to small growers involved in these cooperative groups. Mutersbaugh notes that the $15 organic premium per 100 pound sack can significantly help these farmers, who often earn less than $1,000 a year. He also notes that many of these farmers are indigenous women whose husbands have migrated in search of work. And, Mutersbaugh says, because only a percentage of Fair Trade coffee is actually sold as Fair Trade, since the supply of Fair Trade exceeds the demand, the organic certification is that much more important for these growers.

Organic certification, Mutersbaugh writes, "is ... the key for farmers who want to get Fair Trade market access. If they produce coffee that is 'double certified' as Fair Trade and organic, and their coffee is gourmet quality, they will gain market access. This is why farmers spend so much -- and it really is costly -- to gain access to Fair Trade Certified/organic markets."

In response to worries about organic standards being broken, Mutersbaugh admits this is a "concern" not held only by the USDA -- Mexican grower groups worry about it as well. But external certification has its own problems. Mutersbaugh cites an example where a village had been offered certification by an external inspector, but without actual inspections. "Basically," Mutersbaugh said, "the external inspector would simply invent the paperwork! These [organizations] have come to be called 'chafa' (as in wheat chaff) certifiers, but they pose a real challenge."

Mutersbaugh hammered home two points related to corruption and certification:

1. "Internal inspectors do not, in my experience, certify their own villages: They certify other villages outside of their regional organizations."

2. "Internal inspectors are accredited. They must receive training and pass examinations approved by the national level certifier."

Mutersbaugh also tied the USDA ruling into the bigger picture of international conservation, development, and the global economy. He wondered why it took ten years for the organic price premium to increase by five cents a pound. (In June of 2007, the price for a 100-pound sack of organic coffee will jump from $15 to $20.) The cost for certification over this 10-year time period has "skyrocketed," he said, but "this price is simply not reflective of ... the cost to certify."

In addition to this, he added, certified-organic producer families are often key partners in crafting conservation infrastructure. These farmers not only produce coffee, but also habitat. Their fields and conserved lands offer water filtration services, and their conservation support preserves biodiversity and endangered species. Grassroots environmentalists in Mexico often work with networks of certified organic growers to preserve prime conservation land. "What of the songbirds protected, butterflies?" he asked.

Mutersbaugh offered a two-part compromise as a way to alleviate some of the USDA's concerns and strengthen certification processes:

1. There should be a "thoroughgoing accreditation process" for internal inspectors, he said. This would allow internal inspectors to be accredited by external bodies, therefore making the system more credible, but still affordable.

2. The organic premium should be increased to $30 a sack (30 cents a pound) "so that internal inspectors can afford to be inspectors rather than migrants to the U.S" Many good inspectors, he said, leave the business because it is such a low-paying and thankless job. A premium increase to 40 dollars a sack would be a "better bet," he adds, but he doesn't think that's realistic.

But as Mutersbaugh and the other researchers I contacted noted, barriers to entry in organic production are high, and U.S. consumers need to be willing to compensate grower groups in order to help them develop the infrastructure needed to support organic. If it takes 40 dollars a sack -- well, for U.S. consumers, that's just 25 cents more per pound than we're paying now. "Imagine," Mutersbaugh says, "getting a raise only once a decade!"

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Can Coffee Stimulate Hair Growth?

Renowned Coffee and Science Expert to Discuss Caffeine's Health Benefits at International Culinary Center

New York, April 25 /PRNewswire/ -- Dr. Ernesto Illy, International Coffee Organization Promotion Committee Chairman and Honorary Chairman to premier Italian espresso company, illycaffe, is scheduled to present at the International Culinary Center on Friday, April 27, 2007. Key topics will include coffee's effects on degenerative diseases Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, weight loss, and even baldness, followed by a special espresso extraction tasting. Dr. Illy will share eighty-two years of scientific expertise with the renowned chefs and aspiring students at New York City's prestigious International Culinary Center, presenting recent breakthrough scientific coffee research including:

  • The Center for Prevention and Health Service's ten-year study oncoffee's inverse correlation to the cognitive decline in men
  • American Journal of Medical Genetics recent study on the interaction of coffee and Parkinson's Disease
  • Caffeine reported to stimulate human hair growth in the International Journal of Dermatology

About Dr. Ernesto Illy

Throughout his career, Dr. Illy has openly shared his scientific discoveries -- not only to advance the interests of his own company, but for the benefit of all people who enjoy and appreciate the authentic Italian coffee experience. His passion and life's work make him espresso's most respected ambassador. He has single-handedly introduced some of the

most important quality control innovations in espresso brewing in the last 30 years. By applying the scientific method, illy has given the consumer the greatest gift -- the highest quality Italian Espresso coffee each and every cup.

(keep in mind, this is a press release produced by.. yup..illy.)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Certifying Coffee Aids Farmers and Forests in Chiapas


April 22, 2007


NUEVO PARAÍSO, Mexico — Miguel Moshán Méndez’s troubles have piled up over the past two years.

Like other coffee growers here in the impoverished state of Chiapas, he suffered devastating losses when Hurricane Stan passed through 18 months ago, tearing coffee trees from hillsides. He lost half his trees, then borrowed money to get by. Now, he must find extra work as a laborer to pay his debt, which will make it harder to maintain his tiny farm.

“I have always fallen to the moneylender, God yes,” he said, sitting in the office of his coffee-growing cooperative.

One source of hope: the increasing number of programs that help growers get higher prices for their beans if they show that they are protecting the environment, investing in community projects and treating workers well.

Most of the programs are run by nongovernmental organizations, or N.G.O.’s, intent on both improving the lot of farmers and the environment in the world’s coffee-producing regions. The N.G.O.’s certify coffee that meets their standards, banking on the notion that consumers will pay higher prices for coffee produced with concern for workers and the environment. They believe that, in turn, will drive up the price that companies are willing to pay the farmers.

Mr. Moshán Méndez’s cooperative sells to Starbucks, which has a similar in-house program that pays higher prices to farmers who meet its standards.

In this coffee region, known as Jaltenango, on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Madre, the programs appear to be making a difference, farmers say. Higher prices for certified beans have trickled down to some growers, and certification has had an environmental impact.

In the past, the area has lost forest when poor farmers cut trees and switched to cattle ranching or growing corn to try to make more money than they did cultivating coffee beans. When the farmers earn enough money to stick with coffee instead, the forest is protected; coffee trees here are traditionally planted under a canopy of indigenous trees.

The rush to certify coffee is now drawing an expanding list of players, including giant plantations and multinational traders, something that seemed unimaginable just a few years ago.

“We have sold the idea to producers that this is life insurance,” said Santiago Arguello, who is in charge of certified coffee programs at Agroindustrias Unidas, or AMSA, the Mexican subsidiary of the giant trader ECOM Agroindustrial Corporation, based in Switzerland. “If we don’t learn to work with the little producer, the whole business will disappear.”

Such trading companies, the middlemen between growers and the corporations that roast the beans and sell coffee, have not been acclaimed for their social conscience in the past. Now as Mr. Arguello, himself a third-generation coffee farmer, sketched plans for his company to sell more certified coffee, he scrolled through a catalog of community projects he is urging importers in Europe and North America to finance.

Pioneers in the certified coffee movement watch the changes with wary approval.

“The good thing is that you see these ideas gaining traction,” said Rodney North, a board member at Equal Exchange, an importer in West Bridgewater, Mass., that has bought coffee under the Fair Trade certification program since 1986.

The most important element of Fair Trade, he said, is that it demands that buyers of the coffee it certifies pay higher than market price, and that the fixed price holds even if the market collapses. Other programs do not set a price, but those who run them argue that trading companies and smaller buyers will pay to assure a high quality supply.

The price for Fair Trade organic coffee has long been fixed at $1.41 a pound and this year it will rise to $1.51 compared with the market price of about $1.08.

But as the certification programs spread, they are drawing large plantations, or fincas, to join, raising worries among small-scale producers who fear they will lose their advantage as the original suppliers.

Rancho Custepec, one of the state’s largest coffee plantations, is one of the newcomers and is working with the Rainforest Alliance.

As part of the certification process, Armando Pohlenz, the grandson of the plantation’s founder, said he planned to put about eight square miles of his land in trust for El Triunfo reserve, a refuge for dozens of rare animals, including the quetzal.

Mr. Pohlenz said he applied to the Rainforest Alliance when he was looking for a long-term contract and a better price for his coffee, and one of his American buyers recommended that program. To get the certification, he also has had to improve workers’ safety conditions at the ranch’s mill.

Sixto Bonilla, the manager at the Cesmach co-op in Ángel Albino Corzo, the area’s largest town, said such competition from plantations would force changes among smaller producers. “If we want to stay in the business, we have to find the way to be more competitive,” said Mr. Bonilla, whose co-op sells under the Fair Trade label.

One morning last month near the end of the harvest, Margarito Robledo Vásquez watched as workers unloaded his coffee from a pickup truck into the Cesmach warehouse.

He had left his house before dawn to make the two-hour drive down the dirt mountain roads. He raked his fingers through the almond-colored unhusked beans in an open sack. “This puts a meal on the table for lots of families,” he said.

Belonging to the cooperative — and selling Fair Trade-certified beans — has paid off where it matters most: his daughters’ education. Two have college degrees, the other two are studying for them.

Over at the Comon Yaj Noc Pic co-op — the cooperative Mr. Moshán Méndez is part of — the farmers have placed their hope in the Starbucks relationship.

The co-op will receive $1.23 a pound this harvest from Starbucks, said Juan Carlos Cameras, a co-op official. (Starbucks pays $1.43 but AMSA, the trading company that is Starbucks’s buying agent in the region, takes its cut.)

With photos in Starbucks’s Mexican stores, the cooperative has become a showpiece for the chain’s Mexican franchisee, which has pledged $150,000 to the co-op’s social projects over the next three years, including a computer center for online high school classes, dormitories for the students and a sports field.

But for all the benefits of certified coffee, the plans have barely begun to blunt the acute poverty in Chiapas, the legacy of centuries of feudal relationships that are only now breaking down. “We should not think that Fair Trade can solve all the problems of inequality here,” Mr. Bonilla said.

In Brooklyn, Hipsters Sip ‘Fair Trade’ Brews


April 22, 2007


WHEN Kazi Hossain, a real estate broker in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, telephoned a client recently to describe a house for sale, he played up one of the property’s most desirable attributes. “One block from Vox Pop!” he exclaimed. “You know Vox Pop?”

It seems like everyone in that newly gentrifying neighborhood knows Vox Pop, a cafe and bookstore that, by day, draws young families and office job escapees. But perhaps more important than the knitting classes and band performances that establish the business as a kind of community center is its coffee, proudly described on well-placed signs and on the menu as “fair trade” brews.

“The fact that the coffee is fair trade is certainly more sustainable for the farmers, and having this coffeehouse also helps sustain our community,” said Willow Fodor, 29, a customer who said she moved to Ditmas Park because of the cafe. “I just loved the vibe.”

Fair trade, like more familiar labels such as organic, cruelty-free and sustainable, is another in a series of ethical claims to appear on products — a kind of hipster seal of approval. The fair trade ethic is spreading eastward from the West Coast, where it has been promoted by well-financed activist campaigns and where progressive politics are more intertwined with youth culture. Scott Codey, a member of the New York City Fair Trade Coalition, said the number of retailers in the city selling fair trade products like coffee, tea, wine and clothing has grown to hundreds, from 25, in the last three years.

In general, the fair trade label means that farmers of crops like coffee or cocoa in the third world, or workers who stitch T-shirts in factories abroad, are paid fairly. The label is intended as a guide for socially conscious consumers in rich countries when buying goods that originate primarily in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

Amid the wine bars and boutiques that line Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, Jonathan Coulton, 36, a musician wearing black rectangular glasses, was hunched over a laptop at Gorilla Coffee, where a blackboard proclaims all its coffees are fair trade. It “makes you feel like you’re doing something good just by drinking a cup,” he said.

It may be trendier to advertise clothing as green, or, in the words of a recent Barney’s Co-Op window display, as “insanely sustainable,” but fair trade — and its cousin, “sweatshop-free” — are gaining in popularity. Emily Santamore, a founder and a designer of Moral Fervor — a line of yoga clothing made from an eco-friendly fabric and, according to its Web site, “produced sweatshop-free in Portugal” — said boutiques regularly ask about the origins of her products. For her customers, she added, fair trade assurances are “becoming almost necessary.”

TransFair USA, a nonprofit group in Oakland, Calif., that awards a Fair Trade Certified label to farm products, says fair trade coffee is the fastest-growing specialty coffee in the United States. It claims that since 1999, its programs have put $60 million more into the pockets of third-world coffee growers than they would have otherwise earned. Such goods were once stigmatized as uncool: the weird Guatemalan pants worn by a high school art teacher, or the muddy-flavored coffee served at a student-run cafe. But savvy marketing, and better products, have helped the fair trade label shed its frumpy image. American Apparel, the fast-growing chain that pays most of its factory workers above the garment-industry standard, and which runs advertisements featuring skinny hipsters in provocative poses, has increased many customers’ awareness of labor issues and raised the design ante for products promoted as socially conscious.

Proponents of the fair-trade movement, which began in the 1980s in Europe (and where flowers and even soccer balls are labeled fair trade), say the low prices that most companies pay to producers in economically disadvantaged countries cause widespread misery: poverty, unsafe work conditions and forced child labor.

TransFair USA, founded by a group of activists in 1998, says it audits American companies that receive its certification to ensure that third world farmers of coffee, cocoa, fruit and other crops receive a “fair, above-market price.” The group says the system has improved conditions on farms and that the additional income, subsidized by higher consumer prices, has enabled farmers to send their children to universities and communities to build clinics and schools.

Fair trade has a particular appeal to a generation of consumers that came of age during campus labor protests. In 1996, Kathie Lee Gifford was humiliated on national television by the news that children in Honduras were making clothing bearing her name, and, in the ensuing years, student protesters demanded better conditions for workers making clothing with university logos; some streaked through campus because they would “rather go naked than wear sweatshop clothes.”

After graduating from the New School with a degree in literature in 1993, Sander Hicks, 36, the founder of Vox Pop, worked at a Kinko’s, where he and his fellow workers experimented with union organizing and even a worker collective. Now, he’s proud of his high-quality coffee, but asserts that the fair trade label gives it an additional “karmic kick.”

Not everyone is feeling it.

Some industry observers and journalists have identified labor abuses on farms producing crops that have been certified as fair trade by international groups, like paying migrant workers below a country’s legal minimum wage.

Jean Walsh, a spokeswoman for TransFair, conceded that this was sometimes the case. “But the fair trade system,” she said in an e-mail message, “is the only mechanism that begins to guarantee small-scale farmers the income they need to be able to improve the wages of laborers on their farms.”

(Unlike food, items such as clothing and other non-agricultural goods, when sold in the United States, have no single recognized certification system. Instead, consumers have to trust the wholesalers and retailers.)

And though many people buy fair trade products in reaction to what Mr. Codey of the New York fair trade coalition calls “mainstream commercial culture,” others point out that to make a real impact, fair trade has to become much more widespread, even if that means losing some of its in-group appeal.

Larger corporations, including McDonald’s, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, now offer some fair trade coffee, but, “it’s still too limited in the United States, to just a few commodities,” said Kevin Danaher, a founder of TransFair.

“It’s not places like Gorilla that are going to make a difference,” said Janice Allen, 27, a barista at Gorilla Coffee, with a piercing just over her lip and chipped blue nail polish. “Maxwell House going fair trade, that would make a difference.”

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Global warming to damage coffee industry

Radio Australia - News

April 12, 2007, 03:05:52

Global warming poses a threat to future world coffee crops with rising temperatures and drought likely to force some producers to seek higher and cooler land.

Licht's International Coffee Report says global warming is going to present the world's coffee growers with a big challenge.

It notes a United Nations Environment Program research project in Uganda which says a rise in temperatures of about two degrees Celsius will mean a dramatic reduction in the coffee growing area .

In India's Coorg coffee region, rising temperatures and reduced rainfall will reduce the number of bees to fertilize the trees and increase the threat from a destructive pests.

[This is was orginally published on April 12, 2007 by Radio Australia]

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Coffee By the Bucket Better for Blood Pressure than By the Cup

By Neil Osterweil, Senior Associate Editor, MedPage Today

Reviewed by Zalman S. Agus, MD; Emeritus Professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

MedPage Today Action Points

* Explain to patients that this longitudinal cohort study suggested that women drinking a lot of coffee may have a lower risk of hypertension than more abstemious women.

* Point out that the investigators suggested that the effects are small and patients who are normotensive, men or women, should not worry about coffee drinking.

UTRECHT, The Netherlands, March 23 -- Coffee for women, and its effect on their blood pressure, is an exception to the maxim that moderation in all things is a good approach to life, contend researchers here.

Women who drink coffee by the pot full for a long time had a lower relative risk of hypertension than did women who indulged in one to three daily cups, Cuno S.P.M. Uiterwaal, M.D., of the University Medical Center, Utrecht, and colleagues, reported in the March issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The effect on blood pressure of a lot of coffee did not hold for men, the investigators found in their longitudinal cohort study. But both men and women who abstained from coffee had a lower relative risk of hypertension than light coffee drinkers.

"The most important merit of our study is the elucidation of the role of coffee intake through its relation with hypertension in increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease," they wrote.

"Although there are reports claiming coffee to be hazardous, the larger cohorts show no association between coffee intake and cardiovascular morbidity or mortality or with the prognosis of myocardial infarction," they added.

They concluded that the effect of coffee on hypertension risk as it relates to cardiovascular disease may be immeasurably small.

"A practical implication from our findings would therefore be to abstain from professional advice concerning coffee intake in normotensive individuals, which indeed agrees with the latest clinical guidelines on hypertension," they wrote. "We cannot preclude that associations between coffee intake and cardiovascular outcomes are different among hypertensive individuals."

The investigators looked at the relationship between blood pressure and coffee consumption in 2,985 men and 3,383 women who took part in two general population studies of risk factors for chronic diseases.

The patients, with a mean age of 40 at study entry, had baseline visits during which they filled out detailed questionnaires on medical history, lifestyle habits, and diet, including coffee consumption.

The participants were asked how many cups of coffee per day they drank, type of coffee (regular, decaf or other), and whether they added milk or sweeteners. The participants had follow-up visits at six and 11 years.

Hypertension was defined as a mean systolic blood pressure of 140 mm Hg or higher over both follow-up measurements, a mean diastolic of 90 mm Hg or higher over both follow-up measurements, or the use of antihypertensive medication at any follow-up.

The authors found that people who never drank coffee at all had a lower risk for hypertension than light coffee consumers -- those who drank between one and three cups daily. The adjusted odds ratio for coffee abstainers versus light drinkers was 0.54 (95% confidence interval, 0.31-0.92).

On the other end of the scale, women who drank more than six cups of coffee per day had a lower hypertension risk than women who drank between zero and three cups (adjusted odds ratio 0.67; 95% CI: 0.46-0.98).

Men who did not drink coffee also had a lower risk relative to those drank one to three cups daily (adjusted odds ratio 0.60 (95% CI, 0.24-1.49), but adjusted odds ratios for the other two consumption categories, four-to-six cups, and more than six cups daily, were close to 1.00 (1.08, 95% CI 0.79-1.47 and 1.03, 95% CI, 0.72-1.46, respectively).

The authors also found an association between age, hypertension, and coffee consumption. Men and women age 39 and over at baseline had 0.35 mm Hg lower systolic pressures for every cup of coffee they drank daily (95% CI: -0.59 to - 0.11mm Hg), and 0.11 mg Hg lower diastolic pressure (95% CI, -0.26 to -0.03 mm Hg) compared with younger participants, but the latter was not statistically significant.

Dr. Uiterwaal was the recipient of an unrestricted grant from the organization on Physiological Effects of Coffee in Paris. There were no other author conflicts of interest, they reported.

Primary source: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

Source reference:

Uiterwaal CSPM et al. "Coffee intake and incidence of hypertension." Am J Clin Nutr 2007;85:718 -23.

This article was orginally published on March 23, 2007 by You can visit them on

Benefits of a coffee grinder – the issue of oxidation

A great tasting cup of coffee is produced from whole coffee that's ground within a few minutes of brewing. The reason why coffee tastes so much better when it's just been through a coffee grinder, is that within two minutes, or so the experts claim, the coffee beans begin to oxidize, which is what changes the flavor. Most experts agree that the sooner you brew your coffee after you put it through a coffee grinder, the better your coffee will taste.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Is this the end of organic coffee?

Thanks to a recent hush-hush USDA ruling, your clean-conscience, fair-trade, organic latte may soon be a thing of the past.

By Samuel Fromartz

Apr. 03, 2007 | Enjoy your organic coffee now, while it's hot -- because it may not be around for long.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture quietly released a ruling that alarmed organic certifiers and groups who work with third-world farmers. The decision tightens organic certification requirements to such a degree that it could sharply curtail the ability of small grower co-ops to produce organic coffee -- not to mention organic bananas, cocoa, sugar and even spices. Kimberly Easson, director of strategic relationships for TransFair USA, the fair trade certification group, puts it bluntly: "This ruling could wipe out the organic coffee market in the U.S."

TransFair USA is not the only organization sounding the alarm. In the past week, I spoke with nonprofits, businesses and organic certifiers, all of whom are concerned that the USDA ruling will catastrophically raise costs for small-scale producers of organic goods and likely push them back into conventional commodity markets.

The USDA's controversial ruling hinges on methods of organic certification -- a process in which inspectors visit farms and walk through fields, review growing methods, and see what measures the farmer is taking to avoid pests and weeds. If the methods comply with regulations, the inspector then makes a recommendation to a certification agency; and if the farm is approved, it is certified for one year and granted permission to carry the organic label on its products. The USDA National Organic Program has overseen this process since 2002, when a patchwork of state organic standards were codified under a national regime.

Until now, however, there has been a special provision for "grower groups" that made certification practical for farmer cooperatives in the Third World, whose memberships can reach into the thousands. Because of the immense logistical demands of inspecting every farm in a large co-op, a compromise was reached: An organic inspector would randomly visit only a portion of the group's farms each year, usually 20 percent. The grower groups would then self-police the remainder through a manager who made sure they followed the rules. The following year, an inspector would return and visit another 20 percent of the farms. After five years, all farms would be inspected.

But in the ruling made public this month, the National Organic Program overturned that system, saying every farm in a grower group must now be visited and inspected annually -- as has been the practice in the United States -- rather than only a percentage.

"[The previous system] was a mechanism for the low-resource global south to afford organic certification," said Michael Sligh of Rural Advancement Foundation International USA. He has worked with farm groups in the global south for years and in the 1990s helped craft the U.S. organic regulations. His e-mail in box is now bulging with questions about the ruling from non-governmental organizations across the world. "We're literally talking about hundreds of thousands of farmers who will be affected," Sligh explained. The staggered inspection method has been crucial for, say, coffee grower unions in Ethiopia, which have upward of 80,000 members. It was used by organic tea and spice farmers in India, organic sugar co-ops in Brazil, and organic cocoa farmers in Costa Rica, who would otherwise not be able to ship certified organic products to wealthier countries in the Northern Hemisphere.

The new USDA certification ruling arose out of a case involving an unnamed Mexican grower group that failed to detect a farmer using a prohibited insecticide and prevent empty fertilizer bags being used for crop storage -- both of which violate USDA organic regulations. NOP blamed the problem on inadequate internal controls of the self-policing system and decided to ban the practice everywhere. "The ... use of an internal inspection system as a proxy for mandatory on-site inspections of each production unit by the certifying agent is not permitted," the NOP stated. The agency informed organic certifiers of these revised standards in January, and in March published the ruling on its Web site.

In conversations over the past week, certifiers told me they knew of instances where the co-op inspection system had broken down, but thought that the NOP had taken an extreme stand, ending the possibility of group certification and ignoring the constraints of low-income producers. A more measured response would have been to punish the errant grower groups and then launch a public review of the certification system. "We need to have open comment on this and have a dialogue; we need to take a step back and look at the whole thing," said Patty Vincent, coffee product and certification manager at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, an organic and fair trade coffee company. The goal of certification should be to ensure the integrity of the organic product -- so consumers know what they are buying. But Vincent and others believe that integrity can be achieved without sacrificing the economic livelihood of farmers and the viability of the product itself.

If the ruling is unchallenged, certification costs will rise precipitously for co-ops in developing countries. Lebi Perez, training coordinator for Organic Crop Improvement Association International, a U.S. certification group active in Mexico and Central and South America, explained that it currently takes about 20 to 30 days to certify a grower group. "You have to go to the community by car, bus, mule or on foot, and access is difficult during the rainy season, because a stream might swell and you can't get across," he said. In the best of times, inspectors visit four or five farms a day. (Perez said OCIA certifies about 300 grower groups in the region, which average about 400 members each -- or more than 100,000 farmers.)

"We think it will now take up to a year to certify an entire group -- that's our calculation," Perez explained. And because OCIA charges $150 to $270 per day of inspection, the farmers' financial burden will increase dramatically. For small coffee and cocoa growers who earn about $2,000 a year, that burden may become too heavy; to survive, some will be forced to drop organic certification.

Indeed, the only farms likely to afford the new inspection program will be large-scale plantations. As an illustration, consider the case of one co-op of Peruvian banana farmers, for whom the USDA ruling is especially ironic: The 1,500 growers formerly worked as tenants on a single plantation, but with agrarian reforms in the 1960s each family got a plot of the landlord's land. Had that plantation been maintained, it could have had one visit a year from an inspector. But because the property is now split among 1,500 families, inspectors will need to visit each farm on the land.

"Our cost is going to be at least double, because we're going to rise from 40 inspection days a year to more than 100," said Luis Monge, regional certification manager with Dole, which buys organic bananas from the Peruvian co-op. If the market does not cover the extra cost of certification, Dole has another option. Instead of reaching out to small, community-based grower groups, it could buy exclusively from larger banana plantations in Colombia, Ecuador and Honduras that can afford to pay for their own certification. "It will present an opportunity for larger farmers to get in business," Monge agreed. "But that's against the roots of organic agriculture, isn't it?"

In the end, though, even the rise of plantations may not be enough to keep certified organic coffee in American mugs. The U.S. market for the brew is growing 40 percent a year, but organic coffee -- unlike bananas -- is impractical to farm on a large scale. It's too labor-intensive, because the plants grow under a shade canopy on steep hills and must be harvested and weeded by hand. So farmers seeking higher income may make the switch to non-organic methods, tearing out native shade trees and relying on herbicides and pesticides to boost bean yields. Growers who can't afford to make that jump may continue to farm organically and forgo certification, selling at the lower conventional price and hoping for the best.

Either way it's a bitter cup. But if the USDA ruling remains unchallenged, it's what we'll all be drinking.

-- By Samuel Fromartz

originally published by on April 3rd, 2007.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee

Mekonnen Leka, 78, takes a sip of his evening cup of coffee with
nearly 30 friends and neighbors who have gathered at his home
in Afeta, Ethiopia, February 13, 2007. As the elder, he gets the first cup.

(Wes Pope/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

by Colleen Mastony

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

2 April 2007

JIMMA, Ethiopia—Inside the coffee plant’s corrugated metal fence, men look more like mules as they lug 100-pound sacks of coffee on their backs.

But as midday nears, a heavenly scent wafts from the corner, where Ahmed Achoumeto, 25, pounds a pile of black coffee beans in preparation for the noontime break.

“I am terribly addicted. If I don’t get coffee, I can’t see properly,” he said, standing barefoot in the dirt, grinding the beans with a primitive 3-foot-long wooden pestle and a mortar made of a hollowed tree stump. “Almost everyone here is addicted.”

Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee. And in this caffeine-addled corner of the world, coffee is a blessing and a curse swirled together in a cup.

Amid the lush hills and misty valleys, peasants endure bleak conditions and back-breaking labor to bring the beans to the world market. While nearly every worker detests the process—the picking, sorting, washing, shelling and drying—they are also hopelessly hooked on the sweet and delicate flavor of the black elixir.

Here, comfort comes from the very thing that causes so much pain: the little brown bean.

People sip the brew morning, noon and night, calling together large groups of friends and neighbors, burning incense while they roast the raw beans, brewing the drink in a black pot with a narrow spout and serving it in small handle-less cups. This is not a quick cup of joe, but a coffee ceremony - a slow, sensual process that soothes aching bodies and revives minds.

“Coffee is the backbone of our country,” said Frew Demeke, 40, a former official at the Coffee and Tea Development Authority, as he sipped a steaming cup in a local restaurant. Ethiopia is among the poorest countries in the world. But as another patron, noted, “even the smallest coffee shop has an espresso machine and milk frother.”

The coffee plant—a woody perennial evergreen shrub that can grow to 12 feet—was first cultivated in this region of southern Ethiopia.

The Arabica strain, which today accounts for at least 75 percent of the world’s production, originated in these green, rolling hills.

A popular legend dating to as early as the 8th Century claims that a shepherd discovered the coffee buzz when he noticed his goats rearing and bleating. The goats had just eaten the leaves and berries of a nearby bush, and so the shepherd tried some berries too. Feeling a strange euphoria, the shepherd ran to a nearby monastery to share his great find.

Thus, a global obsession was born. The monks began chewing coffee beans before lengthy prayer sessions, and the custom spread throughout Christian Ethiopia. Coffee traveled along spice routes to Yemen, Turkey and Europe. Along the way, someone began brewing the beans to make a hot drink.

Today, the French call it cafe and the Italians calls it caffe. Whatever the language, the word for coffee points to its birthplace: the ancient region of Ethiopia called Kaffa, a highland area with rich soil and cool temperatures that make for the perfect conditions to grow Coffea arabica.

In the central square in Jimma, one of the largest cities in the Kaffa region, a 6-foot decorative coffee cistern dominates the central square. A huge panoramic mural shows a woman picking coffee among the hillsides.

This is a breathtakingly beautiful place of low-hanging clouds and deep green hills. Groves of eucalyptus and banana trees line the winding roadsides. White trumpet flowers bloom around every corner. Baboons and black-and-white colobus monkeys frolic in the forests. Outside of town, coffee plants blanket the hillsides, growing under the shady canopy of acacia trees.

Little has changed over the centuries. People still live in mud huts, bathe in open streams and transport coffee on the backs of donkeys. And while people here don’t have much—there is no running water, and electricity arrived only recently—they do have coffee. Lots of coffee.

The plant accounts for more than 50 percent of Ethiopia’s exports, 95 percent of which is grown by small farmers. About 700,000 households are dependent on coffee, and another 15 million are partly dependent on coffee for their livelihoods, according to Oxfam, the British-based charity, which has worked to increase living standards for coffee workers around the globe.

On small family-owned farms, every hand is needed in the coffee harvest, which means that children as young as 4 years old will pick coffee with their families. The place is so tied to the little beans, that when coffee prices rise on the world market, thatched roofs on the mud huts here begin to disappear, as people can afford to replace their roofs with tin.

Every morning, just after sunrise, people walk the rough dirt roads toward the coffee processing plants—long, rustic buildings with corrugated metal roofs.

Inside, large shelling machines roar and belch clouds of dust. Dozens of women and girls—some as young as 12 years old—use large white pans to sift the beans, throwing them in the air in a continuous rhythmic action that fills the room with a shh-shh-shh sound like one hundred maracas shaking in unison. Dozens more crouch on the ground picking impurities from the beans. And every few minutes a barefoot man drags another bag of beans inside for processing. Outside, piles of coffee beans are spread on the ground to dry in the sun.

It is dreary, monotonous, exhausting work. But amid the burlap sacks and the rattling of beans, coffee peasants dream of a better life. Asegedch Malutu, 20—a beautiful woman crouched on a thin plastic mat to sort the beans—fantasizes about working in a shop. “Anything but this,” she said. Etensh Sisay, 16, a tall girl with big eyes, said she is so tired when she goes home, she immediately falls to sleep. When she closes her eyes, she said, she dreams of coffee.

Most of the factory workers are girls and women. Boys go to school, and men work in the fields. Aynalem Bekele, 14, in a Calvin Klein T-shirt and a bandanna around her head, sometimes wishes she were a boy because, she said, “they are free.”

The grueling process leaves the workers with little more than aching backs, stiff joints and—if they are lucky—$1.50 a day in wages. At the end of the day, the workers shuffle out of the factories and back to their houses. They gather together around the fire to take their share of comfort from the coffee.

In a rustic one-story house, with dirt floors, earthen walls and a papaya tree outside the door, nearly 30 friends and neighbors gather for their evening cup. Mekonnen Leka, 78, the half-blind and elderly homeowner, sits on a wooden stool, waiting for his daughter to make the coffee. “The smell, the taste, the feeling it gives you,” he said of the drink. “When we come home tired, it makes us strong.”

His daughter, Elfenesh Mekonnen, 33, tends a small charcoal fire in the center of the room. She roasts the green coffee beans on a metal pan until they turn dark and oily. The charcoal glows red and gives off a soft light. Smoke fills the room, which feels warm and cozy. On benches along the walls, people chat and take in the aroma.

She pours each cup with flourish, not spilling a drop. The first cup goes to Leka, the eldest in the room.

Everyone in the room watches as Leka brings the small cup to pursed lips. He blows on the coffee. And then he takes a sip. His whole body seems to relax. He smacks his lips and then smiles.

“Very good,” he says.


A.D. 850: Legend says, an Arab goat herder notices his goats acting strangely. He tastes berries of an evergreen bush where the goats feed and experiences the first official “coffee buzz.”

1600: Coffee spreads across Europe. In England, by the late 1600s, coffee supplants alcohol as a favorite breakfast drink.

1688: The largest insurer in the world, Lloyd’s of London, begins life as a coffeehouse.

1730: The British introduce coffee to Jamaica, where today one of the most expensive coffees in the world is grown in the Blue Mountains.

1800s: Coffee cultivation spreads to South and Central America and Hawaii.

1900: Luigi Bezzera invents espresso, introducing a pressure process that reduces brewing time. He calls his new machine the “Fast Coffee Machine.

1908: Invention of the world’s first drip coffeemaker.

1950s: Instant coffee is “perfected.”

1971: Starbucks opens, and within three decades the trendy coffee shops become a worldwide phenomenon.

Sources: World Book Encyclopedia, International Coffee Organization, and “Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World,” by Mark Pendergrast