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sustainability

On The Table

This morning, did you sip a Sidamo from Ethiopia, hit back a Huehuetenango from Guatemala, or maybe tipple a Tarrazù from Costa Rica? Did your coffee come from Africa, Asia or South America?

These single-origin coffees, alongside current industry issues, were on the table in Washington this week. NCA brought coffee – the beverage and the business – to the halls of Congress. At the biennial NCA Coffee on the Hill event, members joined members of Congress, their staff members, foreign diplomats and executive branch personnel to meet, greet , enjoy coffee and discuss related issues.

Coffee on the Hill is an event designed to afford NCA members an opportunity to interface with their legislators and legislative staffs to discuss industry-wide as well as local issues affecting their business. The event also puts the U.S. coffee industry front and center in the eyes and ears – not to mention palates – of government decision makers and influencers. Also invited to the event are diplomats and diplomatic staffs of coffee-producing countries, as well as Executive Branch officials from agencies such as the Department of Agriculture, U.S. Trade Representative’s Office and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The October 23 event took place in the Gold Room of the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill. The building is one of several that house offices of members of the House of Representatives and Senate. The tables were lined with pots of freshly brewed and served coffee, identified by their country of origin. Along with the brewed coffee, samples of the green beans and roasted beans were also on display.

Bringing a flavor of a different kind to the event were demonstrations of “cupping” and “pourover” coffee preparation. Cupping is the process by which highly trained experts taste coffees to determine their flavor profiles for the purposes of buying coffee beans or for determining which coffees to use in a roaster’s proprietary blends. Pourover is the latest craze in coffee brewing, consisting of deceptively simple-looking equipment used with great precision and expertise. The filters are wet with 200 degree water, freshly ground coffee is added, a quick water soaking is administered followed by a timed pause to allow the coffee to de-gas, which increases its absorptive properties, the remaining water is filtered through the grinds, and finally the coffee is robustly swirled in the carafe to homogenize the extraction outcomes.

Visitors to the event also received a detailed primer on the significance of the coffee industry to the U.S. and world economies, as well as a description of the key issues currently facing the coffee business. This year’s highlighted issues included: Congressional acknowledgment of the distinction between coffee consumption and caffeine ingestion in energy products at a time when government officials take a look at overall caffeine consumption; Congressional support for U.S. agricultural programs that support sustainability; Congressional funding of the Foreign Agricultural Services of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (FAS) and USAID to support efforts promoting coffee production that sustains farmers and the coffee supply chain; Congressional support for federal legislation that would establish a national standard that affirms the safety of foods developed using bioengineering technologies; Congressional dedication to working toward the passage of Free Trade Agreements with other nations and support for treaty provisions that would confer U.S. origin on coffee roasted in the U.S.; and continued Congressional commitment to an active role for the U.S. as a member of the International Coffee Organization (ICO). NCA is part of the official United States delegation to the ICO.

The event attracted about 500 participants, including several members of Congress and foreign dignitaries. Coffees on hand included those from Brazil, Burundi, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Hawaii, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru and Rwanda.

So, next time you sip that Sidamo or tipple that Tarrazù, you may well ponder on the universe of individuals, nations, cooperative processes and governmental issues that make up the world of coffee. Perhaps, too, you’ll reflect not only on the complexity of the flavor, but also the complexity behind its arrival in your cup.

 

 

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Defining Sustainability

With climate change and environmental disasters such as the Fukushima reactor meltdown and the Gulf oil spill making international headlines, “sustainability” has become a media buzzword. It’s also bandied about in connection with agricultural methods that preserve the land, market conditions that enable producers to support their families and cultures, and technologies that foster a healthy supply of quality products.

It’s also being discussed in probably every boardroom of every major corporation in the U.S. and beyond. There is enormous pressure on industries to demonstrate a commitment to sustainability as a key element of responsible corporate citizenship. As the public becomes ever more aware of cultural, environmental and socioeconomic issues in the developing world, the pressure to deploy sustainable programs and strategies continues to ramp up.

But, what does “sustainability” really mean? You’ve probably heard the word at least 100 times already this month, or read it in online or in print media without giving its fundamental definition a second thought.

Generation Y’s preferred source for quick information – Wikipedia – simply and dismissively defines “sustainability” as: “the capacity to endure.” However, the grammarians and scholars at Merriam-Webster go much further, defining “sustainable” (from which “sustainability” is derived) as: “relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.”

Merriam-Webster’s definition is appropriately open-ended since “resource” can include people, the land, the environment, natural resources, cultures and social institutions. It also embraces the many individual elements that comprise the concept. For the coffee industry and its executives, the definition embraces the crucial components of a sustainable coffee supply chain – the well-being of farmers, long-term support for their families and communities, safe and healthy agricultural methods and outcomes, and an ample supply of quality coffees produced in a responsible way.

Barring some dramatic societal and cultural shifts, there will always be a consumer demand for coffee. However, ongoing environmental and natural threats in coffee-producing regions, such as the specter of coffee rust which is currently plaguing Central America, are serious threats to the long-term health of coffee production. Thus, it’s our responsibility to ensure a sustainable supply of quality coffees for years to come. That is the underlying goal of NCA’s sustainability initiatives – to ensure the future of the coffee industry.

NCA has brought sustainability into sharper focus in 2013, developing the following mission statement earlier this year:

Ensure that coffee is grown and traded in a way which ensures that future generations can be sustained economically, environmentally, and socially through its production.

This summer, NCA initiated a Sustainability Task Force of industry professionals to help develop potential goals and action points.

At the meeting, participants from the private sector, non-governmental agencies (NGOs) and non-profit groups met in NCA’s New York offices to start the ball rolling. The goal was to gather input and exchange ideas, and address several basic questions. What does sustainability mean to you? How can NCA help you achieve your sustainable development goals and objectives?

Going forward, the task force will convene periodically, seeking to define NCA’s role more precisely as a facilitator and center of knowledge for coffee sustainability. In the meantime, NCA is working on developing an online toolkit of information, knowledge and resources for those with questions and concerns about sustainable growth.

As a matter of policy, NCA plans to use its role as the U.S. coffee industry’s pre-eminent trade association to collaborate with industry leaders and promote the long-term sustainable growth and development of the coffee industry. NCA is committed to continuing to work to ensure that coffee production is carried out in a way that future generations can be sustained economically, environmentally and socially through its production, in line with NCA’s sustainability mission.

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Learning From the Job?

Everyone learns differently. Some prefer a classroom setting, while others like the hands-on approach. Just give me the facts, some would say, while others need context and analysis to get the whole picture. Hitting the books is one way to go, but learning on the job is another.

But, what about learning from the job? In a way, that describes the novel approach taken by NCA’s Coffee Summit. Rather than sit through long presentations filled with facts, figures – and, oh yes, charts – coffee professionals convene around current topics as well as issues they bring to the table. Rather than getting textbook pablum and theory, they come away with real-time solutions to real-life issues they face in their businesses each day.

How? By participating in an interactive, collaborative setting blended with expert insights into timely industry topics. This year’s Summit covers the hot-button topics of the exploding single-cup segment, the growing challenges of a sustainable supply chain, and techniques for managing risk in a volatile market.

Experts share their knowledge, but then the floor is open for professionally facilitated collaborative discussions. By sharing individual knowledge, experiences and perspectives, participants can turn the facts and figures into solutions and strategies. In other words, the learnings are filtered through the realities of business applications to yield practical, deployable solutions.

The process is deceptively simple, yet richly complex. Summit participants come from all sectors and niches along the supply chain, each bringing their unique body of knowledge, skills and approaches. Together, they can examine an issue from all angles – seeing how the problems trickle up or down or present themselves differently to professionals in different roles. In other words, the issue to a roaster may look quite different from the purview of a supplier or importer/exporter – and the solution to the problem may lie in seeing the problem in a different way.

On top of this collaboration on topical issues, the Summit also incorporates the effective technique of “open-space learning.” Dedicated sessions are set aside to enable participants to bring their own “big questions” to the table to be dissected and debated by the group. In this way, that elusive solution you’ve been seeking for a nettling problem may emerge from collaborating with other coffee professionals who see it from a different angle. And, in the professionally facilitated sessions, groups are put together in various ways – around common questions, at random, or to achieve a cross-section of roles. Others are self-directed by participants themselves.

Past experience has shown that the format really pays off. Among attendee comments was that the format offered a chance to interface with colleagues they wouldn’t ordinarily get to talk to – like a roaster sitting down with his supplier’s logistics pro, or a retailer chatting with his wholesaler’s packager. Participants found this intermingling to be a unique opportunity that was both an eye- and door-opening.

Other feedback noted the extraordinary networking the format allows. With multiple pairings among groups, attendees are brought into constant, rotating contact with others. One participant noted that it was the only meeting at which he got to meet every other attendee.

This year’s NCA Coffee Summit takes place on October 2 – 4 at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia. Speakers include Ross Colbert, Global Strategist Beverages Sector at Rabobank International covering developments in the single-serve segment and Tracy Ging, Director of Sustainability at S&D Coffee, presenting on the challenges of a sustainable supply chain.

So, if you have a business challenge that needs fixing, you may want to jump in and learn from the job in this novel new approach to learning.

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