By Luiz Roberto Saldanha Rodrigues: Jacarezinho, Parana State, Brazil
When a Los Angeles judge earlier this month finalized a ruling that coffee sold in California must carry cancer warning labels, many California residents may not have paid much attention to yet another labeling requirement.
Ever since voters passed Proposition 65 more than 30 years ago, after all, Californians have watched the steady proliferation of vague statements about chemicals, cancer, and birth defects. They appear almost everywhere, from the windows of hardware stores to signs at Disneyland. They’re so abundant that Amazon.com even sells them as stickers in rolls of 500.
Many people have begun to ignore these labels because they’re so common and because the information they convey is almost useless.
So why am I concerned if they now also show up on coffee?
For me, as a coffee farmer in Brazil who has been exporting coffees to the U.S. since 2013, the judge’s decision poses a direct threat to our farm as well as to my employees and our efforts to grow safe crops in a sustainable manner.
In 2004, I inherited a badly degraded farm in the state of Parana. After years of abusive sugar-cane cultivation, the land was wounded. I resolved to restore it through sustainable farming: caring for the soil as much as for what it produced, using the latest technologies and best agronomic practices.
Today, our farm flourishes—and our coffee earns the seal of certification from UTZ, the benchmark for sustainable production of coffee and tea that promotes biodiversity and natural-resource conservation.
I can’t do this alone: Coffee farming is labor intensive, and so I employ many workers. Together, we’re committed to both environmental and economic sustainability.
We consider Californians our partners: Their purchases make life on our farm possible.
But for how long will this be true? California’s new warning labels conceivably could appear on every cup that Starbucks and other coffee retailers sell, just like those warning labels that appear on cigarette packages.
This is absurd. Coffee doesn’t cause cancer.
Coffee is both delicious and healthy. We all know that it can boost energy levels. It also may lower the risk of diabetes, dementia, and depression. Some studies even suggest that it can help prevent colorectal and liver cancer.
The judge based his ruling on bad science. It’s true that roasting beans can produce trace amounts of acrylamide, which, if consumed in huge quantities, may increase the risk of cancer. Yet the same can be said about many baked and fried foods, like fried potatoes, potato chips and bread. Even people who drink enormous amounts of coffee do not need to worry about their habit.
California’s warning labels, however, will overlook these essential caveats. Their plain purpose is to discourage the drinking of coffee.
In the United States and around the world, California enjoys a reputation as a trendsetter. This is especially true in the market for specialty coffees. The habits of Californians affect our business dramatically—and if they reduce their coffee consumption, due to a judge’s misguided decision, it will hurt coffee growers everywhere, from my farm in Brazil to producers in Rwanda and Sumatra.
I worry about the ability of the coffee industry to maintain and improve its efforts at sustainability. A loss of sales, after all, means fewer dollars to invest in the protection and restoration of the land.
Many consumers seek out my farm’s UTZ certification. The practices that make it possible, of course, come at a cost. Reduced revenues would endanger our ability to earn this important credential: That’s bad for me as well as for the environment.
I worry, too, about the workers who will lose their jobs or suffer wage reductions, especially in poor countries where jobs are scarce and people struggle to survive on small incomes—all because of a bad ruling based on precaution rather than science.
Unfortunately, these warning labels may look like a quintessential “First World Problem”—a minor inconvenience for people fortunate to live in the wealthiest countries.
But they pose a real threat to vulnerable people in the developing world.
I hope Californians find a way to keep unnecessary, non-science based warning labels off their coffee—and continue to enjoy the excellent drink made possible by hard-working people on sustainable farms like ours and others around the world.
Luiz Roberto Saldanha Rodrigues and his family produce award-winning coffee in Parana State, Brazil. Reclaiming degraded sugar cane land, they grow coffee, soybeans, wheat and corn using precision technology and agronomic programs to build the soils health and productivity. Luiz is a member of the Global Farmer Network (www.globalfarmernetwork.org) where this column orginates.