Shireen Deen

Starbucks Beans Not So Green

By the end of the year, Starbucks will increase its ever-growing empire by opening a coffee shop in Mexico City -- the first Starbucks in Latin America. Ironically, Starbucks will soon be selling gourmet coffee to the very people who are under-paid for harvesting coffee beans.

It's a little bit like dumping leftover pork chops into the pig trough.

News of the Mexico City shop came as Starbucks was presenting its first Corporate Social Responsibility report at its annual shareholders' meeting in Seattle last month. The report emphasized the company's claimed commitment to doing business in socially, economically and environmentally responsible ways, to benefit the communities around the world where it does business.

But according to activists, Starbucks isn't doing enough. They charge that while Starbucks claims to be green, in fact, it has done little to keep genetically engineered ingredients out of its foods and beverages or to promote Fair Trade, shade-grown coffee.

Coffee plants naturally grow in the shade, under the cover of a diverse biosphere. But unless your coffee says "shade grown" on the bag, it was probably grown in a field for easier harvesting and greater profit margins. The clear cutting of land to create these fields eliminates many edible plants that locals live on. "Fair Trade," meanwhile, means that the farmers who grew the beans were paid a living wage for their work. There are several organizations that certify goods as "Fair Trade," including Equal Exchange and Tranfair.

Recently, activists across the world gathered at Starbucks shops to leaflet and protest the company's hypocrisy. The organized action, spearheaded by the Organic Consumers Association, ran from Feb. 23 to March 2 and was timed to coincide with Starbucks' annual meeting.

Early on the brisk morning of March 1, Debbi Shoval and her partner stood outside of a neighborhood Starbucks and handed out leaflets.

Shoval explained that there are several complaints against Starbucks. The first: Most Starbucks still use milk from cows that have been injected with rBGH -- Monsanto's sketchy bovine growth hormone -- which unnaturally forces cows to produce more milk. The resulting milk contains bacteria, antibiotics and pus.

That's right. Pus.

In addition, Starbucks will not guarantee that the beverages and food it sells are free of genetically engineered products, according to the OCA. Although Starbucks now offers the option of organic milk and soy milk, in reality, the offer is pretty pathetic: Starbucks does not publicize these alternatives in its stores, and even if you do request some organic milk in your latte, you'll have to pay a hefty 40 cents extra.

Shoval also worries that if Starbucks uses genetically engineered milk, genetically engineered coffee beans may not be far behind. "The reason coffee is genetically engineered is so the coffee fruits will all ripen at the same time," she said. "Right now, they ripen at different times, so it has to be hand-picked. But if they're sprayed with ethylene, they will all ripen at once." According to the OCA, a move from hand-picking to machine harvesting could put more than 50 percent of coffee farmers and harvesters out of work.

That would only add injury to insult: Most coffee farmers do not receive a living wage for the coffee they produce. Though consumer pressure has encouraged Starbucks to sell Fair Trade coffee in bulk, Starbucks will not brew it as its coffee of the day more than once a month. And of the bulk coffee that Starbucks sells, less than 1 percent will be Fair Trade coffee this year, claims the OCA.

Although in 1995 Starbucks promised to pay a living wage to the workers who produce the coffee it sells, the company has done little or nothing to live up to this pledge, OCA charges. Right now, though Starbucks claims to pay $1.25 per pound of coffee, most of that goes to middlemen. Coffee growers are making less than 40 cents per pound of coffee, about one-fourth what they earned five years ago.

No one from Starbucks' corporate headquarters returned calls for interviews.

The OCA encourages Starbucks coffee drinkers to talk to the managers at their local shops and demand Fair Trade coffee and rBGH-free beverages and foods.

Tell Starbucks -- and while you're at it, tell other eateries you frequent -- that you just don't find pus in your milk as appealing you used to.

Shireen Deen can be reached at


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