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What’s On Your Plate: Coffee-Certification Schemes

By Paige West
Associate Professor of Anthropology

In her forthcoming book, From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea, anthropology professor Paige West explores coffee as a commodity that has been uniquely important to Papua New Guinea and its citizens, and how coffee’s historic role in Melanesian culture has changed with the onset of Fair Trade, Organic and other coffee-certification schemes. The specialty coffee market – a market in which coffee is valued, bought, and sold based on images of its country of origin – are, in many ways, at odds with Melanesian ways of being in the world. Prof. West examines the world of coffee from Papua New Guinea, including its political ecology, social history, and social meaning, in order to contribute to anthropological discussions about neoliberalization and circulation of commodities. An excerpt:

Coffee is a plant native to Ethiopia, which has, over the past two thousand years, become a commodity powerhouse producing physical spaces and human subjectivities on a global scale. Coffea, the genera that encompasses the multiple species of coffee, is part of the enormous family Rubiaceae, which includes six hundred genera and about ten thousand species. Within the genus Coffea there are ten species, two of which—Coffea Arabica and Coffea Robusta—have radically transformed ecologies and societies in the equatorial and subtropical parts of the world. Today, twenty-five million people in sixty different countries produce twelve billion pounds of coffee a year, and each year coffee generates retail sales of over seventy billion U.S. dollars, with the vast majority of it produced in tropical countries and seventy-five percent of it imported by the United States, Europe, and Japan. In the world market of commodities, only petroleum has greater monetary value and is traded more frequently than coffee. 

Coffee grows on trees that thrive at altitudes between 1800 and 3600 feet in the subtropics and between 3600 and 6300 in the tropics. In these environments you can easily take a ripe, pulped, and fermented coffee bean, plant it, germinate it, and then propagate it as a coffee-tree seedling. You can then plant that seedling, once it reaches about thirty centimeters in height, in a field or a mixed-crop garden, and in three to four years your seedling, now a tree, will produce tiny white flowers. About thirty-five weeks after the flowers are pollinated, your tree will be covered in ripe red coffee “cherries” that are ready to be harvested.

While there are some farms that use harvesting machines, the majority of coffee is harvested by hand which allows farmers and pickers to go tree to tree and harvest only the ripest “cherry.” Pickers can also return to trees over and over again to make sure that every cherry is eventually harvested. Once the cherries are harvested they must be pulped, fermented, dried, processed, shipped, roasted, packaged, and marketed before they are consumed. Throughout this process the beans are bought and sold many times over and are moved to numerous locations. With each relocation, their economic and social value as well as their social and symbolic meaning changes.

Coffee moves around our planet. It is carried by farmers on their backs, in donkey-drawn wagons, and in wheelbarrows. It is loaded into trucks, cars, airplanes, boats, and ships. It moves down walking tracks through dense tropical forests and well-worn paths across deforested land. It travels on dirt and gravel roads, on regional highways, and on superhighways. It moves across our airways and shipping lanes. At every moment, every second of the day and night, there is coffee moving around our world. And it has moved like this for a very long time. Coffee has been at the commodity forefront of what is today described as ‘globalization’ since the social, economic, and political processes and configurations that we name with that term began.

On November 1 at 6:30 p.m., Prof. West and other Barnard faculty will participate in a panel discussion entitled "What's on Your Plate? The History and Politics of Food." Read more about food politics from other faculty panelists in biological sciences and history