Coffee is one of the most brutal and difficult segments of agriculture.
At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the country’s biggest gadget and tech showcase, IBM and an agricultural transparency company called Farmer Connect announced a new app called Thank My Farmer. It uses blockchain to trace coffee from bean to cup, and coffee is a worthy use of this tech, because it is, to be frank, a mess.
The crop we all depend on comes from an industry that relies on incredibly hard work, low and often non-guaranteed wages, and price-cutting practices that can be disastrous for the environment. Even worse, coffee’s labeling situation is often varied, misleading, and laden with terms and concepts that can be impossible to verify. Your coffee might say “fair trade,” but that turns out to be legal and totally different from a label reading “fair trade certified,” in that the former is meaningless and the latter is not.
Buying ethical coffee is a small, everyday, low-cost way to throw your support in with fair wages for farmers and sustainable agriculture, but it’s damnably difficult to know what to buy. Thank My Farmer is an interesting attempt at transparency, if not at actually changing the way coffee is grown and produced.
The Thank My Farmer app uses blockchain technology to track every step of the coffee production process. Blockchain is a complicated concept; in short, it’s a decentralized record-keeping system, one that can’t be screwed with by any of the participants and which provides real-time, trustworthy accounting. For more explanation on how blockchain tech is coming to agriculture, this story is a good primer.
This app will allow you to scan a coffee package and see its entire pathway to you: farm, milling, exporting, processing, roasting. You can see a sample of how it works here.
Essentially, this is a tracking app, which means it isn’t really designed to, say, broker labor deals among Colombian farmers or arrange for third-party auditors to ensure that a coffee is really shade-grown. That stuff is vital, but it’s really outside the abilities of a blockchain tracking app. Instead, Thank My Farmer provides the ability to donate to site-specific campaigns, like environmental protection or medical providers for farmworkers, or to the actual farm. It can’t help your coffee-buying dollars be used fairly, but it can allow you to direct more dollars to the place where your coffee comes from.
The app will launch sometime soon—a press release says “early 2020”—and will at the start only allow you to scan 1850 brand coffee, a fancy imprint of Folgers. But the press release also says the app will be expanded throughout 2020, allowing more coffee producers large and small to join in, and letting consumers see exactly where their coffee comes from.
In the meantime, there are still ways to buy ethical coffee, or at least more ethical coffee; check out our guide to coffee labels here. Most important, though, is to understand how this industry works, and that it is our duty as coffee lovers to do our best to support the farmers and environments where our favorite bean (note: not technically a bean) comes from.