A Conversation with Chris von Zastrow

(Chris recently retired from Starbucks where he was coffee sustainability director. All views are his own and not necessarily those of Starbucks.)

Good morning Chris. Thank you for taking the time to chat. I think you grew up on a coffee farm. Can you tell me a little about that?

My father managed coffee farms in Kenya and Tanzania before buying his own farm on the slopes of Kilimanjaro in Tanganyika (Tanzania) in 1959. I was born in Kenya in 1953, and apart from my time in boarding schools in Tanzania, Ethiopia and England, the farm was my home until I was 19 years old.

We had 150 acres (60 hectares), but soils were poor and the land rocky. Mechanization wasn’t possible, and all the work was done manually. Operating costs were horrendous. We grew arabica coffee under rather heavy Gravilea robusta shade canopy, as was the custom at the time. The coffee was sold through the local auction system. There were very few direct sales back then.

My parents’ farm was nationalised in October 1973.

What are the main environmental challenges that now face coffee production?

Climate change.  Areas that were good for coffee 20-30 years ago are now becoming marginal. Coffee production is tending to move higher up mountains, especially smallholder production in Central America, but also in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. This leads to deforestation – in many cases deforestation of primary forests, which in turn leads to changes in weather patterns, landslides, long-term soil infertility, etc.

Water is another challenge. Washed coffee uses a lot of water. I don’t believe that we should necessarily be retaining the washed coffee method; it can have quite a negative impact on the environment and water quality. Although washed coffees certainly tend to be much better in the cup, I do believe there are alternative methods such as pulped naturals or de-mucilaging machines that use much less water.

What are the main issues on the social side?

I would say child labour, and that goes back to general economic issues and poverty levels in producing communities. Low coffee prices haven’t helped.  The kids are working on the farms due to the high poverty levels in coffee communities; adult workers are unable to achieve sufficient income levels to feed and educate their families. They have no choice but to send their children into the fields to make up the deficit.

If you stop the kids from working, you are taking food away from desperately poor families. This is a problem that many coffee producing countries are confronted with – and not just in Africa. If consumers want to enjoy a product, then a living-wage price needs to be paid that can help alleviate the problems. Consumers can’t just mandate that there is no child labour without providing and supporting alternatives. The underlying issues need to be tackled.

That brings us on to economic sustainability…

Prior to the lapsing of the International Coffee Agreement (ICA) in 1989, the minimum trading reference price the ICA sought to protect through the quota system was $1.15 per pound; from a relative purchasing power perspective, that would be the equivalent today of around $2.45. The C market price currently is $1.10 – $1.20 per pound. That said, differentials have improved, but nowhere near enough to make up the difference.

In spite of all the aid, social and economic programmes that have over the years been implemented in producing countries by industry and governments, coffee farmers are half as well off today as they were 30 years ago.

Admittedly, they have found ways of cutting their costs, such as higher use of relatively cheaper pesticides, herbicides, etc. to increase production – not healthy for humans, wildlife biodiversity or the environment.

The wealth in the coffee supply chain now sits with the trade houses, the roasters, and the coffee shops. It’s not at the farmer level.

What coffee do you drink now?

Starbucks coffee of course! I make it in a French press or in a stove-top espresso. I enjoy House Blend, and particularly the single origin coffees from Guatemala, Ethiopia and Colombia.

Thank you, Chris for your time and input!

 © Commodity Conversations ®

This is an extract of an interview from my upcoming book Crop to Cup – Conversations over Coffee to be published later this year.

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