18. Do We Really Care About Water?

Do we? It’s been three months since SCAA’s Symposium and I have been reflecting on several statements I heard while in Seattle. There were several that struck me, but the primary one was that 85% of wet mills do not use proven water efficient technology, as emphasized by Paul Hicks’ keynote.

In their book Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner state, “Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work, whereas economics represents how it actually does work.” Likewise, in the coffee industry, morally we care about water, highlighted by an entire day devoted to it at Symposium, but the economics prove otherwise. Now, that sounds harsh, but give me a moment. If you had to look at what the we have economically incentivized in the USA when it comes to buying coffee, what would would you think of? I know what I would think of—fair trade, direct trade, organic, happy birds, rainforest conservation, and local. I would never think of water. I may think of some ambiguous form of sustainability, but during my coffee purchasing decision, anything regarding water would not enter my mind. Therefore, I believe it is easy to draw the conclusion that we, as coffee consumers in the United States, really don’t care about water. Although, morally, we know we should, but the economics prove otherwise. I do not believe this is due to apathy, but simply that we are ignorant of the water issues revolving around coffee.

So what do we do? I’ve been around enough specialty coffee folk to know that this is an industry that cares. We care about farmers and workers. We care about the rainforest and birds. We care about quality throughout the coffee chain. So what can we do to care about water? I believe multiple options and combinations exist to solve this problem, but the one I really want to highlight is the use of social incentives. Currently, the coffee industry is full of social incentives. For instance, many of us will pay more for a bag of certified direct or fair trade coffee than we will for a coffee of equal quality that is not certified. Why do we do this? Because there exists a collective social conscious that purchasing coffee with these certifications is morally right, even if it costs us more money. I believe that using this same moral incentive could be a path to improving the coffee industry’s negative impact on water resources. What does that look like in reality? Initially, it requires coffee professional and consumer education. I would argue that the majority of coffee people are unaware of the burden the coffee industry can put on surface water resources and the people that rely on that water. I would compare this to the consumer’s ignorance of coffee farmers’ low wages and battle with hunger. Consumer education helped usher in the age of fair and direct trade coffee—when people were informed and they cared. Then it will require revision of current certifications and/or new certification (not desirable) in order to have an objective evaluation of a coffee’s effort to improve water conservation/quality. Finally, I believe this will trigger a coffee company’s economic incentive to help coffee producers at origin be more water conscious and invest in water conservation.

Would you buy water conscious coffee? if you knew the strain put on the people who live in areas where their water is rendered unusable by coffee production practices, whether those practices be poor water conservation or heavy pollution from wet milling, I believe you would.  The issue is we just don’t know, but we can know and once we do, I have a feeling we will see that 85% figure begin to drop significantly.

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