Coffee vs. Capital

On April 14th, Oikos NYC launched its first out of three lunch talks scheduled for the spring semester 2016 at The New School. In line with its mission, to enhance student’s engagement with sustainability in economics, the speaker, Christopher London who is Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Milano, discussed the issue of environmental sustainability of food production.

The sociology professor London combined his general thoughts on economics with insights from his field research in the Colombian coffee region.

He started by highlighting the meaning of the roots oikos (house) and nomia (law or management) for the understanding of economics and the dual role it plays for people as external functioning of the economy and internal management of the household or family economy. Before coming to the economics of coffee production, he elaborated on the history of agriculture, thereby emphasizing the inherent political character of rights to land as well as the Marxian interpretation of the role of land enclosures in enabling the transition to capitalism. In an unexpected turn he discussed the connections between earlier peasant economies and today’s romanticized “neo-peasantry” as exemplified by the hipster movement.

London gave a quick overview over the institutional development of the Colombian coffee farmers since the early 20th century and brought visual material to show the difference between early “organic” and post-green revolution monoculture coffee plantations. He explained that the green revolution on the one hand allowed millions of farmers to escape poverty, while on the other hand it locked them into unsustainable agricultural practices and led to the depopulation of rural areas.

After discussing the role advertisement around the romanticized coffee farmer “Juan Valdez” played in connecting producers to consumers, he delved into the contradictory topic of “ethical consumerism” and certification of coffee products. While certificates make coffee farming more sustainable, the flipside lies in the one-sidedness of the poor peasants’ responsibility to implement sustainability measures and comply with a huge variety of institutional and technical requirements. Without trying to downplay the positive effect of certification, London argued that they create a regulatory regime which restricts the development of peasants as they do neither allow for sufficient accumulation to move towards a really sustainable and organic production of coffee nor offers a promising future for the young generation.

The question which emerged from the discussion was, “How can we organize production in a way that it is not simply demand oriented but also takes into account the ecological, social and economic well-being of the affected regions?”

One proposition mentioned by London would be a massive state investment program to establish the capacities for organic farming in Colombia. In the lively open discussion which followed, several points were raised regarding the role of sustainability in global food production and agricultural subsidies. The main conclusive point was that if we want to move towards a world of sustainable food production, which enables farmers to live well off their product without degrading the environment, any regulatory regime has to be accompanied by the willingness to pay much higher prices for food. Prof. London gave the example of 15-20$ for a pound of sustainably produced coffee.

This brought him back to the neo-peasantry movement in the main coffee consuming countries. He emphasized that these higher prices can only be sustained by a society, in which full time workers earn sufficient wages and do not depend, as it is the case for millions in the US, on food stamps to get by. Therefore we can conclude, that the distributive regime in developed countries indirectly affects such diverse issues as the long term sustainability of the Colombian coffee industry.

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