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I’m not the only one dying for a coffee

By Murray Bourne, 14 Jan 2007

Next time you head for the local coffee shop, consider:

  • From the point of sale at the Nigerian coffee farm, the price of coffee has grown 4000% by the time it lands on your table.
  • Starbucks earned almost $5.8 billion in net revenues during the first three quarters of 2006. (Data source no longer available)
  • "Oxfam said last month that the Ethiopian growers selling to Starbucks earned between 75 cents and $1.60 a pound on beans that Starbucks sold at up to $26 a pound." (Source:, no longer available). That's a 2,500% markup.
  • "In Kenya [...] 'casual' coffee workers make approximately 1000 shillings a month (roughly U.S. $12)" (Source: TeaandCoffee)
  • Child labour is common in the coffee industry. This is a result of poverty, cultural norms and survival realities.
  • There is serious risk to workers in the coffee industry due to pesticide exposure. This is a particular problem for children working in the fields, since pollutants have most effect on young bodies.

Here is a sobering list of chemicals used in coffee production, from Coffee and Conservation:

Endosulfan. Used against coffee cherry borer. Class II (moderately hazardous).

Chlorpyrifos. A broad spectrum organophosphate used against coffee cherry borer and coffee leaf miner. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency banned most household uses in 2000. It is a contact poison. It has caused human deaths, and has been linked to birth defects. It is extremely toxic to birds, freshwater and marine organisms, bees, and other wildlife. It can bioaccumulate and affect bird reproduction. Class II.

Diazinon (brand name Basudin). Used against coffee borer.

Disulfoton. A systemic organophosphate insecticide used against leaf miner. Class 1a, extremely hazardous (highest toxicity).

Methyl parathion. Organophosphate used against leaf miner.

Triadimefon. Copper-based fungicide. Class III (slightly hazardous).

Cypermethrin. A synthetic pyrethroid used against coffee cherry borer. Class II.

An added problem is that the labeling on such pesticides is rarely translated into local languages, and many agricultural workers are illiterate anyway. This results in experimental amounts of chemicals being used and ignorance of withholding periods (the time between application of the pesticide and 'safe' consumption by humans).

What can we do?

  • Only buy organic coffee (not a perfect solution, but better than consuming pesticides)
  • Try to redress the imbalance in the system (you could consider buying Fair Trade coffee, thus distributing the wealth more evenly.)
  • Pressure your government, and the multinationals, to accept free and fair trade between developing and developed countries.
  • Support education programs in developing countries, to break the cycle of poverty.
  • Drink water, while there is still some left.

Parting shot: I found some forgotten instant coffee in a drawer at work. It's probably a year old. Appropriate for this article.


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