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Saturday, March 8, 2014

For life, fair and sustainable coffee and palm oil

Growing coffee, keeping a few trees. Photo Flicker/colros

Yesterday at work I received a lesson in how our appetites for coffee and palm oil are harming old growth tropical forests. I also learned how things can be done better—and in some places, already are.

The speaker was one of my agency’s newer hires, a young and energetic biologist who had interned for his professors to study coffee plantations in Costa Rica and oil palm farming in Malaysia.

The upshot is that coffee can be grown in forest shaded areas—and thus have a smaller or negligible impact on tropical ecosystems. But coffee growers often prefer forest unfriendly open-field cultivation because they can fit more plants in the same area. And with coffee buyers squeezing growers on price, there is pressure to yield as much product as possible from any given property. In fact, as prices get more competitive some farmers are forced to cut down more forests simply to maintain their family’s income.

What is it that pushes prices so low? In large part, it's the desire of coffee consumers to pay as little as possible for their morning java.

Palm oil fruits at harvest. Flicker/Ahmad Fuad Morad
Another lesson learned: Palm oil growers in places like Malaysia are often much less forest friendly. To grow oil palms—a global commodity for use in a great many processed foods—farmers destroy very large areas of very old, thriving tropical forests. This devastates habitats for indigenous peoples and all sorts of life, including the orangutan. Even small buffers for streams become scare, which worsens aquatic impacts from the excessive fertilizers applied to grow oil palm trees. 

As always when conversing about such topics, the numbers get staggering and the wish list for making everything better gets long. And while food conglomerates in Southeast Asia are doing research in sustainable practices for growing oil palm trees, there needs to be more research and lots more action.

Real changes in how we supply palm oil and coffee will, it seems, come when consumers demand it—when they/we are willing to pay a few cents more for whatever it is they/we are buying. But not every consumer can afford a higher food bill, which makes such conversations more tricky.

In this regard, kudos to Kellogs for forcing growers to care for forests and other natural habitats by complying with sustainable standards by 2015. And a tip-of-the-hat to Catholic Online for sharing the news. (It’s always nice when you see a Catholic voice in a listing of secular news outlets. As I’ve noted elsewhere, adding our voice to such "secular" issues is a means toward New Evangelization.)

A once thriving forest now nurses oil palms. Flicker/angela7dreams
Of course, Kellogs is just one company among many. More needs to be done. And here is where you and I come into play. As Benedict XVI put it,
[t]he way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa. This invites contemporary society to a serious review of its life-style, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences. What is needed is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of new life-styles “in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments.”… Nature, especially in our time, is so integrated into the dynamics of society and culture that by now it hardly constitutes an independent variable. Desertification and the decline in productivity in some agricultural areas are also the result of impoverishment and underdevelopment among their inhabitants. When incentives are offered for their economic and cultural development, nature itself is protected. [Caritas in Veritate, §51, quoting Bl. John Paul II’s Message for the 1990 World Day of Peace, 13, and his encyclical Centesimus Annus, 36.] Emphasis original. 
Benedict XVI has elsewhere said much more. So has Paul VI, John Paul II, Francis, and many bishops. You get the idea. 
Coffee. Flicker/wenzday01

The big question thus becomes, what will you and I do to adopt new lifestyles? And what lifestyles should we adopt to better support local farmers (and their families) while helping to protect the thriving ecosystems that have global impacts for life? 

To start, we can learn a little more about Fair Trade practices and buy Fair Trade certified products—especially our coffee and, when possible, anything that contains palm oil. And we must demand that the companies that process food do likewise. We must ask for better, sustainable choices from our supermarkets and the companies they buy from. And we can accept that, for those that can afford it, some of what we do demand will cost us, too. (Yes, we will pay a bit more for environmentally friendly food products.) 

I’ll be focusing more on all this the future. But for now, importantly, we can also pray for the people who grow our foods, those close by and those far away. Pray for conversion of business practices and purchases. Pray for the growth of the Gospel of Life in industries like food production and commodity farming. Pray for virtues to control our appetites, and the grace to build this virtue within us. 

Ultimately, we must pray for life—because when we do so, we’re praying for the dignity of every human person as well as for the planet that keeps us all healthy—assuming that we, for our part, live in ways that keep it healthy, too.

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