World Food Day

Film gives coffee firms a roasting on sustainability

By Chris Mercer

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Coffee Uk

Buying practices of the world's biggest coffee companies have come
under renewed public scrutiny from a new film which explores the
journey of coffee beans from plantation to cup.
took an early peek.

The film, called Black Gold, vividly depicts the poverty and uncertainty in the lives of Ethiopian coffee producers, and calls for more commitment to a sustainable coffee supply chain.

Dubbed by some as the next 'Supersize Me', Black Gold will launch in the UK at a time when ethical food and drink sales in the country have hit record highs, posing a challenge for producers and retailers.

Tadesse Meskala, head of the Ethiopian Oromia coffee co-operative, takes centre stage in the film as he is shown attempting to get a better price for his 74,000 producers. "Our hope is that one day the consumer will understand what he is drinking,"​ Meskala says.

In one scene, his farmers are amazed and others almost amused to discover just how much their coffee sells for in developed world coffeehouses and cafes. Producers on average get less than $0.3 for a $3 cup of coffee.

Coffee prices hit a 30-year low between 2001 and 2003, giving producers in developing countries a torrid time. Ethiopia depends on coffee for roughly 67 per cent of its export revenue.

Prices have begun to recover in the last year, leading to hopes that some kind of stability can be found in the supply chain. Proposals for a new International Coffee Agreement, intended to improve market stability, were discussed by the International Coffee Council last month.

The world's four largest coffee firms, Nestlé, Kraft, Procter & Gamble and Sara Lee, declined an offer to participate in Black Gold. A spokesperson for Nestlé said the firm would prefer to see the film before commenting fully.

"These companies are part of the problem so they should be part of the solution,"​ Ethiopa's ambassador to the UK, Berhanu Kebede, told​.

"The source is drying up. We need a collective approach, where governments, companies and co-operatives sit down and hammer out a price system to find a solution."

More people than ever before in the UK appear to agree with his sentiments. "One in four adults believe it is down to manufacturers to be more ethical,"​ says a new ethical food market report from Mintel​.

It adds that a similar number want the government and supermarkets to introduce stricter regulations.

Sales of Fairtrade food and drink have more than tripled in the UK since 2002, and should at least double again over the next five years, Mintel has found. Shoppers were set to spend more than £2bn on ethical foods this year, up 62 per cent from 2002.

Some big coffee firms have already attempted to tap into this trend. Nestlé launched a Fairtrade certified coffee brand called Partners' Blend in the UK last autumn, to the guarded praise of most in the fair-trade movement.

Critics have since pointed out that less than one per cent of Nestlé's coffee purchases come from certified Fairtrade sources.

Nestlé said in a report also last autumn it had begun a three-year project with Ethiopian coffee growers to help them improve incomes. "The programme is based on giving the farmer the tools to compete successfully in the open market, rather than paying the farmer a minimum price,"​ the firm said.

Black Gold portrayed signs of desperation among Ethiopia's coffee farmers, however. Some have started growing Chat, a narcotic plant banned across the US and Europe.

"Chat fares better than coffee in terms of price - that is why we grow it - money is our incentive. We want to avoid death,"​ one farmer tells the camera.

Greater diversity and a global trade deal are currently the best hopes of turning farmers away from Chat, and all of its social baggage, and producing a sustainable coffee supply chain, according to ambassdor Kebede.

"This year for the first time coffee is not our number one export product,"​ he told​, adding that other products such as lentils, textiles and cut flowers offered workable, alternative income sources for coffee producers.

A global trade deal through the World Trade Organisation would still be essential for long-term change, he said however. "African countries have no means to find subsidies, but if they are given a fair price they can become an important partner in international trade."

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