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.
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.)
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.