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Coffee-Producing Nations Face an Ecological and Economic Rift to Meet Increasing Demands

Aug 24, 2015 01:09 PM EDT

The current system of producing coffee in sun-grown crops like wheat or soy, with low prices fitted to the wealthy countries that drink it, is causing an ecological and economic rift in the poorer nations that produce the beans.

Over the past two decades heavy coffee-producing nations, such as Honduras, Colombia, Guatemala, Brazil, Vietnam and Ethiopia, have become limited in what they can grow on their farms with the introduction of "technified" coffee production in the 1970s and 1980s. Alexander Myers, a University of Kansas doctoral candidate in sociology, explains these findings in his study titled, "Trading in Crisis: Coffee, Ecological Rift, and Ecologically Unequal Exchange," which he presented recently at the 110th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA).

"Historically, coffee has been exploited by the West in various ways, because it's consumed in rich countries, and grown in poor ones," said Myers in a news release

Myers explains that before coffee farming got technical, farmers grew their coffee plants in smaller shaded areas, meaning much less water was required and they were able to use their land to plant other crops as well. However, technified coffee production changed this process to resemble large wheat or soybean farms found in the United States. Now, some ecological researchers have estimated that the average cup of coffee takes 140 liters of water to grow.
This shift came at a time when mass production was needed to meet the growing demand. However, peasant farmers of those countries are now experiencing the consequences of this major ecological shift: since with this new method of farming, farms can only exclusively grow coffee.

"Especially these peasant farmers who maybe have a small plot of land, they rely almost exclusively on coffee sales to sustain themselves," Myers said.

With a drop in coffee bean prices, to about $0.50 per pound in 2001, the economies of coffee-producing nations was nearly whipped out.

"That really hit the famers hard, and it caused a lot of these family farms that have historically relied on coffee to keep themselves afloat," Myers said in the news release. "It's very taxing environmentally."

Over the past two decades, the fair trade movement has somewhat helped offset both the economic and ecological changes, especially for poorer farmers in developing countries. It is this kind of movement that could help raise awareness among coffee drinkers in Western nations, according to Myers in the release.

"What we do matters. The choices that we make, the products that we buy have an impact on somebody," he said. "Sometimes it's a good impact. Sometimes it's negligible or negative. But they do have impacts, so just trying to keep that in mind is important, especially in researching what is behind these consumption choices."

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