Jul 142010
 

We in consumer cultures are always looking for the next cool fad. Exotic foods, the latest fashion, the finest liquor, the slickest gadget—oh, so many new gadgets!—and, of course, the most perfect cup of coffee. For a while, the last of these seemed like a good thing. Shade-grown, fair-trade, organic, small-batch coffees were the most attractive, and the most lucrative. Big players like Starbucks even prided themselves on integrating social and environmental responsibility into their coffee procurement.

But there’s a new trend, currently relegated to the extremely rich, that could convert sustainable coffee farms into CoCAFOs—Coffee Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. Two recent articles, one in BBC News, one in the New York Times, describe how civet coffee—that is, coffee that has first passed through the digestive tract of a small mammal called a civet (I’ll leave it to your imagination where they find the beans)—is more flavorful than regular coffee. It’s currently selling at $500 a kilo. Yep, that’s about $475 more per kilo than your typical good coffee.

Thanks to Daves Cupboard via Flickr

Young Asian Palm Civet in the Wild

When I first started reading about civet coffee, I was optimistic—especially when the BBC article noted that “Civets, related to the mongoose, are usually seen as pests in the Philippines and hunted for their meat.” I thought that perhaps this new trend would lead to the protection, rather than the extinction, of this predator. And I thought locals would have a new incentive to maintain the health of their ecosystems, making a living gleaning coffee from the feces of civets (and yes, for $500 a kilo, I personally wouldn’t mind sifting through civet shit).

But then I read the Times article, which describes how “entrepreneurs” are starting to capture civets and put them into cages. They’re still small operations, but at $500 a kilo, I could imagine these little civet farms blooming into large CoCAFOs throughout the Philippines. Of course, this will probably bring down the price to just $100 a kilo or so, but that’ll spur greater demand, as this new luxury item is suddenly available to upper-middle class consumers. Which in turn will mean even more civet farms. (This is exactly what happened with chicken: it was a luxury meat in the U.S. in the 1940s, to be enjoyed rarely, but all that changed with the birth of industrial meat farming, as the factory farm made the chickens as cheap as the grain they’re fed.)

Farmed Asian Palm Civet Eating Coffee Berries

So let us count the ways that civet farming is wrong. First, there’s the animal rights dimension of imprisoning a predator whose nature it is to stalk and hunt, and force feeding it coffee berries. (The Times article describes how one innovative farmer was able to raise dung production from 1 kilo a week to 3 kilos a day.) Second, these CoCAFOs could translate to a tripling or quadrupling (if not more) of the ecological impact of this type of coffee, as the civet population is artificially inflated through farming and has to be fed meat, rather than just the water and sunlight that standard coffee requires. On a finite planet, we need to find ways to reduce, not expand, the impacts of agricultural production.

I’m drawing attention to this marginal issue now not to play a Cassandra role, in which five years from today I walk into Starbucks and see all the hipsters drinking “sustainably farmed” civet coffee at 20 bucks a cup and sadly shake my head, but because I’m hoping that by drawing attention to this now, animal rights, conservation, and environmental groups can preemptively crush the market for farmed civet coffee, getting players like Starbucks, Illy, and others to agree never to start selling it, no matter how trendy and profitable the elite coffee celebrities make this unsustainable product. Getting this commitment now, before civet coffee becomes part of their business model, and while it offers some low-cost positive PR, may be quite effective with a bit of campaigning by NGOs.

And if conservation organizations are smart, they’ll also hop over to the Philippines, get their hands dirty in the wild civet coffee sector, and with their profits help quash the growth of civet farming. Some social enterprises funded by large conservation organizations could generate significant revenue, which could then be used to lobby the Filipino government to ban civet farming before an entire civet farming sector becomes entrenched and gains the resources to buy Filipino politicians, as the U.S. factory farm sector did to its politicians. So, NGOs, consider this a gauntlet tossed. Can you save the civet and use it to advance the animal rights, conservation, and environmental agendas? Or will we the next big trend be drinking farmed civet coffee in chic cafes as tens of thousands of civets suffer miserable lives in CoCAFOs living off of coffee berries and factory-farmed chickens shipped in from the US? I leave it to you to decide.

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  4 Responses to “Trend Spotting: The Emergence of CoCAFOs”

  1. So when I read your latest blog post about the Civet, I thought of the Argan oil I came across in Morocco. Have you heard of this? http://www.al-bab.com/maroc/env/argan.htm

    It is processed in a similar way to the coffee but my understanding is that they have the goats living outside normally and they collect the nuts after they have been digested.

    Too bad they can’t just do that with the Civets, let them live and collect the the beans as they come!

    Just thought I would pass this along, this could also become a product that ends up going the same route if it gets too popular. I see it in some Kiehls products so it might be something to worry about. http://www.kiehls.com/_us/_en/body/body-moisturizers/superbly-restorative-body-lotion.htm They say fair-trade but that might not take into consideration the treatment of the animal.

  2. Yet another way of exploiting God’s creatures.
    Man”KIND” is an Oxymoron.

  3. I should have seen the civet coffee fire coming.I saw it quietly festering, oh… I saw. It was inevitable with our, as you mentioned, fetish for new consumables deeply rooted in most Americans’ psyche. It makes us happier, right? Bye bye existential dread? I think the novelty-craving mind, the new-stimuli-at-any-cost mind, actually FUELS existential dread, because none of it MEANS anything to us, it isn’t rooted in local culture, with fables and people and years behind it its just…exotic, new. Once a little time goes by, on goes the chase for the next time-filler.
    I remember a few years back, a good friend of mine from my home town has an uncle who is the archetypecal person who would be in, and indeed was in, on the marsupial brew scene.
    “money isn’t an issue, and I know what’s hip, whats poppin’ what’s crackin’, my buddy told me, I have it, thus, I am hip, even with my age, and look how many hip things exist, I bet you didn’t even know about this, let me show you and impress you” kind of guy.
    I want to be cool, I have the means to do anything and everything, a desperate dance for meaning through novelty stimuli. The guy on SLC Punk with the insane shower-head is a great reference. It doesn’t matter WHAT it is, as long as its overpriced and rare.
    The reason I bring up this personal reference is because this mentality, from what I see, is, was, its driving force for its current um…childhood status before reaching full mainstream consumation blossom.
    Like chicken, like all too many clothing trends, like grandeur itself, it starts at the top of the socio-economic ladder and works down through time, lowering in price and booming in quantity, and the top is already hip to something else “in” that the middle and bottom don’t know about yet.
    I wonder how many would pass the Pepsi challenge for dung vs. non-dungified brew.
    The idea of catching it, supressing the fire before it spreads, is the best way, in every way. Catching it before it gets big enough in popularity and thus supply would mean not NEEDING to take all those political, business-altering, PR psi-ops tactics in the first place. Only when it is beginning full blossom will those diversion methods be needed. With the track record of global corporatism, we already know the future of this business if it catches hold- Global businessmen maximizing profits at any cost, a new venture to integrate vertically and horizontally, through Starbucks, and smokescreen/supress any questioning. Now, Starbucks would obviously be the main route for business, but Starbucks is, from how it seems, starting to tune up and take responsibility for their size, if that adds a positive check and balance to fear of the future of this enterprise. We don’t want to go through trying to take down another consumption beast, tacking on another business-fueled, numb-to-animal-suffering enterprise to go alongside “meat farming”. Hopefully, if it did catch full fire, Starbucks would step up to the plate, realizing that by definition this coffee requires literal animal input and involvement, so they have lots of creatures’ suffering or non-suffering at hand, directly. But this is all relative to whether or not it would be Starbucks as the main pusher, and not packaged whole bean companies. That would be more likely, and thus, those people would have to be the ones to worry about. It could go the evil route, it could go the CoCAFO route… The CoCAFO model obviously is the BETTER option here, but what are the likelihoods of that actually happening? With huge demand? Here’s the question: How many acres of CoCAFO could logically exist? Enough to handle a hip phase? Better to try and just squash it now, and not let it get big enough to matter, and keep supporting organic shade-grown and decreased demand overall for consumables.
    Time to start e-mailing our species’ cheerleaders. I’ll start with the movie stars, you start with the music scene.

  4. I thought you all would be interested in Illy’s Facebook response to this blog posting. Glad to hear the company doesn’t support civet coffee.

    “Sustainability is paramount in every action of illycaffè.
    illy buys 100% of its green coffee directly from the growers of the highest quality Arabica through partnerships based on the mutual creation of value. The company fosters long-term collaborations with the world’s best coffee growers – in Brazil, Central America, India and Africa – providing know-how and technology and offering above-market prices.
    The company is undergoing the evaluation of Det Norske Veritas for the certification of the sustainability of the supply chain.
    To come to your question we do not use and do not support civet coffee.”

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