By David Griswold
The true success of the Sustainable Coffee Conference in Denver will only be realized in
the future. There is no doubt, however, that the event, put on by the Specialty Coffee
Association of America's Environment Committee and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center
(SMBC), brought together many well-respected researchers, growers, buyers, roasters and
others for an information-packed day on April 17. More than 300 people packed the lecture
hall at the Colorado Convention Center for what is estimated to be the largest forum of
its kind in the coffee industry on the topic of sustainable coffee.
The program opened with an introduction by Russ Greenberg, director of the SMBC, who
alluded to the first Sustainable Congress that was held in 1996. "The reason we decided to
use the word 'sustainable' in our first Congress was because sustainable is difficult to
define," he said, adding that the very enigma of the word may, in part, be responsible for
bringing such a diverse audience to the table for further discussion. Keynote speaker,
Peter Rosset, director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, followed
Rosset shared his global view of agricultural production and the impact of "green
revolution" agri-practices. In his presentation, he claimed that the planet's declining soil
fertility and crop yields are, to some degree, the result of decades of high chemical
input and large-scale farming. He proposes a return to smaller-scale farming; an approach
he believes would be more environmentally benign and would produce better yields.
A series of six panels explained concepts of sustainable coffee "from seed to cup." The
first panel included representatives of the International Coffee Organization and growers
from Brazil, Nicaragua and Ethiopia. Discussion focused on challenges in the production of
sustainable coffee. Coffee importers, Sustainable Harvest and Royal Coffee, addressed the
importance of a link between growers and roasters. Relevant sustainable practices for
retailers and roasters were shared by roaster-retailers, Allegro Coffee, Starbucks Coffee,
Taylor Made Coffee, Thanksgiving Coffee and the consumer-based Seattle Northwest Shade
The afternoon session included agronomists and trainers from Mexico, Colombia and
Nicaragua, who explained the realities of a coffee farm and the challenges and
opportunities facing growers who implement sustainable practices.
A panel of scientists from Guatemala, Puerto Rico and the United States assessed shade
coffee and its impact on biodiversity. The last session of the day, "Industry at the
Crossroads," shared the perspectives of industries and foundations concerned with
sustainable coffee. Speakers from Cafes de Alta Calidad de Mexico (specialty coffees of
Mexico), the Coffee Kids foundation, Equal Exchange and Starbucks suggested a direction
for the coffee industry to move toward as we approach the 21st century. Given the
complexity of issues discussed, it is not surprising that some participants felt more
questions were raised than answered. Providing future forums to answer those questions and
examine new ones is high on the agenda, and the SCAA Environment Committee and
International Relations Committee are considering the next appropriate gathering.
Additionally, several producing countries have already come forward to express interest in
hosting sustainable coffee forums. Perhaps this, then, is the measure of success for now:
Creating a network for discussion and action that will make the dream of social and
environmental sustainability a reality in the future.
David Griswold is president of Sustainable Harvest Coffee Company, an importer of
shade-grown and sustainable coffees, in Emeryville, CA. He can be reached at 510.652.2100
Portions of this article also appear in Coffee & Cocoa International.
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