A Review of the Sustainable Coffee Conference, Denver
By David Griswold

Coffee Picker 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 Greenberg.

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 Coffee Campaign.

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 or sustainable@earthlink.net. Portions of this article also appear in Coffee & Cocoa International.

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