June 3, 2020

Why Food Security Is a Coffee Industry Issue


Producers are amongst the most vulnerable members of the coffee supply chain. Many are already contending against inconsistent and insufficient incomes, which is why in times of crisis, food security can become a pressing issue.

If left unchecked, insufficient food security could force coffee farmers to abandon production entirely. Here’s what the implications of this are, and how food security experts recommend addressing the problem.

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Food Insecurity’s Impact on Coffee Producers

According to the United Nations, food security is “hav[ing] physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets [a person’s] food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.” While there’s the perception that the number of undernourished people has been declining, it’s actually been rising since 2015.

Despite growing food, many producing countries face food insecurity, as many are in developing nations with high poverty and inequality levels. Because of this, it’s estimated that almost half of all smallholder coffee producers live in poverty. While most are located in East Africa, several are in Latin America and Asia.

Coffee producers tend to encounter food insecurity between harvests. Rick Peyser is Senior Relationship Manager at Lutheran World Relief, an international aid organisation. He says “the livelihoods of most small-scale coffee farming families are… dependent upon income from coffee. Many coffee farming families contend with three to eight months of food scarcity every year. This period, [is] known as ‘los meses flacos’ or the ‘thin months’”.

Unexpected crises, such as flooding or 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic can exacerbate matters so that food scarcity becomes a challenge throughout the year. Janice Nadworny is Co-Director of Food4Farmers, an organisation dedicated to overcoming food insecurity in coffee-producing communities. She says farms “simply can’t produce enough coffee to earn an adequate living that covers food costs and other necessities. Governments provide few public services. [The Coronavirus] pandemic will worsen the situation for rural communities, [that are] now being cut off from supplies, and without adequate cash to secure food in areas where prices have already tripled.”

With governments closing borders and ports to imports and exports, a private food supply could ease the virus’s impact until physical and economic restrictions ease. Marcela Pino is the Co-Director of Food4Farmers, and says, “the communities that are able to grow food… aren’t severely affected by closed roads, as this [can] make it impossible for food supplies to be transported to certain towns/rural areas.”

Coffee prices have long been unable to cover coffee production costs, and unpredictable and challenging weather patterns are likely to become more frequent in the future. This makes food security something that should be prioritized, as it will also keep coffee producers invested in coffee production.

Lee este artículo en español Seguridad Alimentaria: Un Problema en la Industria Del Café

What Happens When Coffee Producers Have Food Security?

Food security does more than keep coffee producers fed. As Marcela explains, it can indicate the state of a community’s well being and help identify further issues. Here are some side effects of food insecurity.

Coffee Producers’ Health is Impacted

Food insecurity means that coffee producers go without healthy food, or eat less of it. According to Ralph Merriam, a Lutheran World Relief Honduras Representative, this will result in fewer meals being eaten or the compositions of meals changing to contain less protein.

Food security requires food to be nutritious. Without access to this, Marcela says consumption of unhealthy and processed foods will increase, which can lead to lifestyle-related health issues. She adds that this has led to an increase in diseases in coffee-growing communities, which is made worse by the lack of reliable healthcare.

Poor nutrition can lead to long term issues that can impact quality of life. Janice says that levels of widespread malnutrition, childhood stunting, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease have increased since 2010.

Families Are Affected

When producing communities don’t have food security, everyone suffers. Often it leads to families breaking up, with producers leaving for better paying jobs in other areas. Some end up in debt trying to keep up with food costs, which might mean that there’s no money left over for school fees or other household expenses. 

Children growing up under such circumstances might abandon coffee production instead of as a job as it could be seen as a costly endeavour that can’t meet anyone’s needs. It’s something that’s already happening in Rwanda and Kenya.

Metal silos for storing dried beans and corn harvested from San Jeronimo’s Family Gardens

Production Is Abandoned & Coffee Quality Is Reduced

If coffee producers can’t sustain food security, coffee farming may not continue. Ralph says that when lines of credit are exhausted and the funds spent on food, assets that aren’t being used due to the COVID-19 pandemic (or because the harvest season is over) will be sold. When production resumes, farming can’t proceed.

Rick explains that “Farmers will naturally use limited resources to feed their families first before they ‘feed’ coffee plants. When families are hungry, coffee plants also go without needed inputs which results in lower yields, poorer quality, and lower prices. This has left coffee farming families and coffee plants hungry for vital nutrition.”

Others might continue production, but reduce production consistency and quality, as there is no time, capacity or finances to improve it. Ralph says that when farmers aren’t preoccupied with food security, productivity and resilience to pests and diseases can be improved. Better quality beans can be developed that fetch higher prices, which can encourage new buyers to be sought and crops to be diversified.

Why Money Alone Doesn’t Guarantee Food Security 

Increased food security benefits producers and the coffee industry. For Rick, the simplest steps to achieving this are paying farmers enough to cover production costs, and supporting programs that help diversify incomes and food sources to increase food security. He says this will help them secure an income that supports a decent living standard, secure nutritious food throughout the year, and invest in coffee production.

It’s important to note that money alone can’t solve the issue and that education and training might be needed. As Marcela explains, “Food security isn’t necessarily a purely financial issue. It can be related to a lack of access to resources… a lack of knowledge of how to grow food, and a lack of education”.

Janice says that without this, the negative habits created by food insecurity might continue. “More income is crucial, but not enough on its own to ensure food security. If there’s no food being grown locally, coffee-farming communities will still rely on unhealthy processed foods being trucked in.”

Equip Coffee Producers to Grow & Sell Food

Helping coffee producers grow their own food is the first step towards helping feed families – but its benefits extend beyond this. This food can be consumed during thin months and sold to markets for additional income. Farmers in a community can cultivate different crops and exchange it amongst each other. 

This will decrease reliance on charity and on coffee as a livelihood. It will also empower them to make decisions that benefit local communities – instead of having limited options or resources.

Train Coffee Producers to Improve Farming Practices 

For coffee producers to take charge of food security by growing their own food, they’ll need to realise that land can be used for more than coffee production. Marcela says that coffee producers should understand that land can be used for cash crops, growing food, and intercropping.

Some might not have access to the latest recommendations and practices on improving farming. Education and training can introduce climate-smart agricultural and agroforestry practices so that when extreme weather patterns and market price volatility hamper production, other crops can be produced. 

Janice adds that agroecological experience will also help improve farm and ecosystem health and progress tracking. It can also encourage the development of an expertise that can be applied to all business dealings. 

Nicaraguan coffee producer Juana Valle and her passion fruit plants.

Nicaraguan coffee producer Juana Valle and her passion fruit plants.

Speaking to just one person can demonstrate the real-world impact that food security can have on lives and communities.

Juana Valle is a Nicaraguan producer who’d been struggling with food insecurity for months. By diversifying her coffee farm and dedicating a hectare to passion fruit production, she doubled her income in 18 months and could employ three people from her community. Her family is now food secure, and she’s using her profits to improve the quality of coffee her farm produces.

This has helped increase Juana’s resilience and helped her break out of a cycle of poverty. By helping others access the same benefits, it will help create a more equal relationship dynamic between producers and other coffee supply chain members, which will create a healthier and more sustainable model that everyone benefits from.

Enjoyed this? Then Read Does Producing Coffee Mean Living in Poverty? Examining The Data

Photo credits: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Lutheran World Relief, Perfect Daily Grind

Perfect Daily Grind

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