Taking the steam out of international coffee chain

by Gumisai Mutume

Washington, 22 Mar (IPS) -- Social justice and environmental activists are planning to put the freeze on Starbucks sales this week to protest the coffee shop chain’s use of genetically modified ingredients and highlight the plight of plantation workers across the world who supply some of its coffee.

The campaign kicked off in more than 100 cities in the United States Tuesday to coincide with the annual Starbucks shareholders meeting in Seattle. Starbucks Coffee Company is the world’s largest gourmet coffee shop chain.

“Protestors will call attention to Starbucks’ use of genetically engineered ingredients in their brand-name products, as well as Starbucks’ refusal to brew and seriously promote Fair Trade coffee,” notes a statement by the group, which includes the Organic Consumers Association, Friends of the Earth and the Centre for Food Safety.

The Fair Trade movement seeks to offer decent wages to small-scale farmers who often have to compete with large, intensive coffee producers. It guarantees a minimum price of $2.80 per kilogram for small-scale farmers, encourages organic and sustainable cultivation and provides credit to farmer co-operatives.

This week across the United States and in Canada, activists will hand out “educational” pamphlets to Starbucks customers outside its shops demanding that the company remove recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), genetically altered coffee beans and other genetically engineered ingredients from its brand-name beverages.

The protests will take advantage of a growing wave of concern by US consumers about the consumption of food containing genetically altered ingredients.

In Europe and Japan, consumer resistance has led to supermarkets either banning genetically engineered foods from their shelves or requiring that they be labelled.

It is estimated that about 10% of US dairy cows are injected with Monsanto’s controversial growth hormone rBGH, which enables them to produce more milk.

The jury is still out on the long-term safety of consuming genetically altered food, and the Food and Drug Administration here does not require gene-altered foods to be labelled.

However, rBGH has been banned in Canada and Europe. In 1999, the British Medical Association called for a moratorium on genetically engineered foods and crops on the basis that they could be unsafe for human health or the environment.

In response to the protests planned for this week, Starbucks says it has little control over the ingredients that go into its products because already as much as 70% of products sold in US supermarkets and more than 95% of the milk supply may have genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

“Because Starbucks does not produce these goods and does not have control over their supply, we are not in a position to give immediate assurances that we can offer only GMO-free goods,” Starbucks president Orin Smith says in a letter to the activists.

The protestors will also seek to highlight the plight of coffee farmers on plantations around the world whose earnings have been further eroded by recent coffee price slumps.

Coffee prices reached an eight-year low last October when they dropped to about $1.34 per kilogram, against average production costs of about $2 per kilogram.

“It’s an outrage that Starbucks refuses to brew and seriously promote Fair Trade shade-grown coffee,” says Ronnie Cummins, National Director of the Organic Consumers Association.

Cummins says it is also unfortunate that the company is not following up on its pledge to improve wages and working conditions of “the thousands of impoverished workers who toil on the coffee plantations of their suppliers”.

Fair Trade coffee has been widely sold in Canada for the last three years and in Europe for about 10 years, but it only made inroads into the US market in late 1999.

Last April, Starbucks pledged it would begin selling Fair Trade beans in its cafes three days before planned protests were to hit 30 cities across the United States to push it to do so.

The activists charge that the company still has not gone far enough in its commitments since it is only providing Fair Trade coffee in US cafes in bulk packages rather than as part of its brewed products which are its bestsellers.

“We appreciate your efforts on behalf of consumers, coffee farmers and the environment,” notes Smith in his letter to protest organisers.  “However, we believe the complex issues that you raise cannot be unilaterally resolved by Starbucks simply agreeing to positions that are acceptable to you.”

“If you are serious about having a major impact on these issues, rather than simply using protests against Starbucks to publicise your cause, we urge you to meet with us to discuss these issues in detail and to work cooperatively with us on solutions upon which we can both agree.”

Coffee is one of the most valuable primary commodities traded in the world and the second largest US import after oil, notes the non-governmental group Global Exchange which monitors coffee trade.  Global Exchange says Americans consume an estimated one-fifth of all coffee produced, making the United States the world’s largest consumer of the beverage.

However, few Americans realise that agricultural workers in the coffee industry often toil in what can be described as “sweatshops in the fields”, says Medea Benjamin, director of Global Exchange.

“Someday we hope every American will find it intolerable to purchase anything made at the expense of human dignity or the environment, and that businesses will offer consumers a full range of Fair Trade products,” says Benjamin.

Fair Trade-certified coffee currently benefits 500,000 farming families in 20 countries, and activists say an increase in US demand would dramatically increase that number.

“This campaign against Starbucks will continue until they meet all of our demands. If necessary we will extend this campaign internationally to Europe and Asia,” warns Cummins.