Coffee ranks with oil and steel as one of the world’s most intensely traded commodities. Many smaller countries depend on coffee for almost all of their foreign exchange. Millions of families worldwide depend on coffee for their livelihood. The majority are subsistence farmers who tend a few trees along with some chickens and vegetables, and count on the coffee to bring them just enough cash to buy the few tools and staples they need to survive.
And, from an ecological point of view, coffee is a crop that is already easier on the environment than many competing crops. Most of the small subsistence farmers never have used agricultural chemicals, and grow their coffee mixed in with other crops and often in shade. Even traditional larger farms with neatly tended shade trees and windbreaks tend to be far more ecologically sound in their agricultural practices than large farms that grow many other cash crops. Consequently, specialty coffee also offers the opportunity for concerned consumers to reward environmentally sound agriculture and discourage destructive practices.
In the very broadest sense, every time you buy a coffee on the basis of origin from a specialty vendor rather than on the basis of price from a supermarket you are supporting a market-based solution to tropical poverty and environmental degradation. In fact, you are helping everyone. You are helping yourself to better coffee and a more expressive choice of coffee; you are helping roasters, and exporters lead more interesting lives based more on shared passion than on pure number crunching; and you are recognizing and rewarding the hard work of mill operators and growers.