There was some engaging plenary discussion on sustainability at last week’s Symposium. During one session, the facilitator broke us into small discussion groups to revisit some of the critical assumptions we make about the sustainability movement in coffee — what we think we know about the issue that may not be true. I particularly appreciated people’s interest in revisiting this assumption: “Development agencies know what they are doing.”
Do international development agencies know what they are doing? It is a fair question from a specialty coffee industry that is interested in engaging more deeply in issues that have historically been outside its purview (like hunger), and considering partnerships with development agencies like CRS as a leading strategy for doing so. If coffee companies are going to partner with organizations like ours, they need to have some confidence that we know what we are doing.
In the spirit of a Symposium whose organizers challenged specialty coffee to courageously revisit some of its most closely held convictions, I have reflected on this assumption. I think a comparison to the specialty coffee industry might be the best way to respond to the question posed in the title of this post.
I don’t think there is anyone who would argue that Direct Trade roasters don’t know how to source great coffee. Quite the opposite, in fact — the Direct Trade model has emerged as the most reliable approach to sourcing extraordinary coffees. Together with the restless search for new origins, Direct Trade’s irrepressible spirit of innovation in sorting and processing continues to bring new flavor profiles into the world. But even Direct Trade roasters don’t source mind-blowing microlots every time. Along with the successes worth celebrating, there are plenty of failed experiments and lots of coffee that doesn’t make the grade. And yet no one would suggest that an organization like CRS could do a better job than a Direct Trade roaster at sourcing great coffee.
I think the reverse is also true. Our organization has helped ward off famine in cases of acute food insecurity, expand the production and consumption of nutrient-dense foods in marginalized communities around the world, and increase household income by fostering more profitable links with markets. Much like Direct Trade roasters, we continue to innovate with our partners in search of improvements in the field. And just as the potential of each coffee is defined in great measure by its terroir, the range of options available to us and the communities we serve depends on the opportunities and constraints that a particular region presents. Collectively, we development agencies haven’t solved the issue of hunger or identified a scalable solution that can be replicated everywhere to increase food security. But that is not to suggest that a Direct Trade roaster could do a better job than CRS at improving food security in the coffeelands.
The idea of partnership seems like a pretty promising approach that can allow each of us to stick to what we do best while increasing the standard of living in the coffee communities we all want to see thriving.