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Re:Co 2019 recap

From the July 2019 issue.

Influential thinkers gather in Boston to address a call to action in response to the low C market.

Unlike other Re:Co Symposiums that celebrate and encourage discussion on a range of global coffee initiatives from gender equality to climate change, this year’s event had one core theme: Coffee in Crisis.

From 10 to 11 April, Boston Park Plaza’s hotel ballroom transformed into a coffee Ted Talk of sorts, with hundreds of seats filled with industry executives and company representatives – coffees in hand – to hear guest speakers present solutions on what could be done to address one of the most pressing issues facing the producing sector.

Following an evening of Fellows presentations to highlight the next wave of curious minds and inspiring research projects, event emcee Peter Giuliano officially commenced day one of proceedings by explaining the logic behind this year’s Re:Co focus.

“It was clear from industry conversations around the world that this is a serious topic you wanted to discuss. One of the reasons for that was because in the autumn of the year [August 2018] the C market price, an index to coffee pricing, fell for the first time in many years below the US$1.00 per pound limit,” Giuliano says. “That moment was a stark reminder to many of us of a fundamental truth.”

That truth was best addressed in a quote Giuliano referenced that said: “While the $1 mark is an important psychological marker, the fact is that the prices have been unsustainably low for years.”

That may be so, but it was a reminder that something has to change.

Executive Director Emeritus of the Specialty Coffee Association Ric Rhinehart hosted the first Re:Co session on macroeconomic dysfunction in the coffee trade, in what he said was “his last time on stage” in a Re:Co capacity. Rhinehart described the current low C market price as “fundamental market behaviour” and said that while pricing is “cyclical”, it’s “chronic and degenerate.”

“Yes, there is a chronic failing in the fundamentals of our market but at this point in time there are millions of folks who depend on coffee for their livelihood who are in crisis, and that’s what we need to remember,” Rhinehart said.

Jefferson Glassie, an attorney representing nonprofit organisations, continued the discussion, speaking about antitrust laws, and why they’re meant to protect of the free market system. Janina Grabs, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Münster in Germany, addressed “band-aid solutions” to sustainable systems and overcoming the single exist fallacy.

“How do we get farmers to differentiate themselves? Inflation is a huge problem at origin. We need to get prices to more sustainable levels, and that can only be done if there is economic sustainability,” she said. “We need to build honest conversations and a model based on scalability.”

A panel of speakers spoke about the visions of progress and what’s beyond the crisis, with Peter Dupont, CEO of The Coffee Collective in Denmark, explaining why he discloses the Free on Board price on his coffee packs, and the importance of engaging customers in conversations about coffee pricing. “We need to be transparent in our conversations about creating a sustainable economy and invite the consumer into the reality of the situation. Only then can they be part of the solution,” Dupont said.

The in-depth conversations continued over the two-day event, with discussions on market consolidation and its impact on sustainability, the progression of consumption growth in producing countries, future profitability for coffee producers, and economic viability of coffee farming. Taya Brown, a doctoral candidate in horticultural sciences, even drew on her experience in the world’s banana industry to explain how coffee could take a similar approach to achieve a fair price to cover the cost of production and address the living wage gap.

The role of innovation and technical advancement in the coffee sector also played a large role in thought-provoking discussion.

David Browning, CEO of non-profit organisation Enveritas, gave interesting insights into chain sustainability insurance and the potential to use technological innovation to identify problems at origin and find new resolutions. One idea was to use drone technology to correlate school absence rates against the distance children walk to school.

After two days, Re:Co concluded with ‘Changemaking sessions’ where attendees broke up into groups to have robust discussion on “how can we each make a difference in light of the crisis?” With individual pledges made, Giuliano urged guests not to be discouraged by the severity of the macro topics discussed, but be inspired by the power of change they can bring about together.

“We are not alone. We have the large coffee community behind us,” he said. “Our job is to amplify what we need in this world and industry, and make a positive change together.”

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