Redefining “sh*tty coffee “: Kopi Luwak

Men have, for centuries, exploited and glorified nature in strange ways. Societies have revered many odd substances ranging from tasteless shark fins to whale vomit, a material that doesn’t smell so great when you figure out where it’s from.

There might be something a whale-y wrong with your Chanel perfume and something fin-ny about that soup.

There might be something a whale-y wrong with your Chanel perfume and something fin-ny about that soup.

The oddity in which I would like to shine the spotlight on is a beverage that many depend on: Coffee (AKA the lifeblood of men and women). While issues of fair trade and sustainability have been raging in the coffee business (thank you, Starbucks), Kopi Luwak is a rising problem. After all, one should never underestimate the powers of perceived luxury (just look at A.W Ayers & Son’s success in marketing diamonds).

What is exactly is Kopi Luwak? Even with the hint in the title, I imagine it would be difficult to chance upon the correct answer. It is, well, coffee brewed from beans pooped by an Asian Palm Civet. Yes, I didn’t make a typo. Kopi Luwak (Civet Coffee) does not have civet parts in it (a notion that is perhaps only slightly easier to stomach). It is expensive “gourmet” coffee made from defecated coffee cherries that have travelled through the intestines of civets, an adorable furry cat-like creature. It is said to be the second most expensive coffee in the world and can cost as much as $80 a cup!

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The reason behind the unusually high price tag is simple: civets can only poop out so much coffee fruits. Traditionally, civet coffee is collected by combing through the forest floor and looking for civet crap. However, with the spike in demand, this method is no longer feasible. Hence, majority of the civet coffee traded today are produced by civets living in awful conditions, confined in tiny cages and force-fed coffee berries. As any college student studying for Finals will tell you, drinking too much coffee can make words dance across the page. Trapped in a tiny space and hyped from the excess caffeine, many of these creatures gnaw on their limbs and die prematurely.

The recent spike in prices is especially ironic considering the origins of Kopi Luwak. Coffee plantations workers in Indonesia used to drink this because the Dutch plantations owner forbid them from tasting the coffee fruits. Thus, fuelled by their desire to taste this famed beverage, they picked up half-digested coffee fruits found in civet stool and brewed it. Over time, the taste for Kopi Luwak spread not because of it’s exquisite flavour but rather due to it’s rarity. In fact, unlike most overpriced frapucinnos, Kopi Luwak does not even taste good. The Specialty Coffee Association of America, for one, states that “general consensus within the industry…it just tastes bad”. A reviewer from the Washington Post has succintly described it as “dinosaur dropping steeped in bathtub water”. Yum.

Keeping the idea of ethical eating in mind, one should surely consider consuming less. However, like so many controversial food products, the issue is nuanced and layered with multiple stakeholders. Demand for the Kopi Luwak comes mainly from the coffee connoisseurs in developed countries (US, Europe, East Asia etc). As with the free market, when there is demand, there will be supply. Civet coffee is primarily harvested in developing regions (Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam) where any potential source of income is aggressively pursued in an attempt to increase their meagre earnings. One can hardly blame these enterprising farmers who are looking for a better life for themselves and the future generation.

Civet farm in Sumatra

Civet farm in Sumatra

Moreover, the notion of not producing civet coffee simply because of animal cruelty is overshadowed by its cultual heritage. Kopi Luwak has had a long history especially in Indonesia and some locals argue that it is a cultural and gastronomical heritage and should be cherished. This argument is echoed in numerous other contentious food products like Foie Gras and Cavier.

Nevertheless, drinking less or even refusing to drink any Kopi Luwak will help the cause. Hopefully, you will now think twice about drinking this sh*tty coffee.

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A Critique on “Cruelty-Free” Eating

Vegan Outreach Literature

“Cruelty-free” vegan literature.

The stereotype goes: “How do you know a vegan when you see one? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.” While definitely not always true, many people following a plant-based diet take pride in their commitment to veganism. Vegans sometimes (again, not always) assume moral superiority. However, the purpose of this blog post is not to perpetuate the vegan stereotype, but to critique a common vegan boast: “cruelty-free.”

The movement toward plant-based diets is said to be great for the environment, the animals, and even people. For these reasons, vegans often claim their products to be “cruelty-free.” The so-called “cruelty-free” plant-based diets do reduce cruelty by an estimated 371 to 582 lives per person per year, but cruelty is virtually ubiquitous in the food system today, whether the food comes from a plant or an animal. It is for this reason that vegans cannot claim their food to be “cruelty-free” or even completely sustainable, as sustainability incorporates not only the environment but also social justice.

In the United States, around 60% of the farmworkers are believed to be undocumented. These undocumented workers face danger when crossing the border and face extreme vulnerability due to a lack of certain rights.

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Although apprehensions have declined over the past decade, border deaths have not.

Crossing the border into the United States is a dangerous risk. Some migrants die when crossing the border, often because of exposure to the hot and dry environmental conditions of the southwestern United States. Between 1998 and 2013, 6,029 migrant bodies were found at the US-Mexico border. Increased border security since 9/11 has made the trek more dangerous, as the areas without guards or fences are in areas of harsh environmental conditions. Women have an added risk when crossing the border: 80% of female undocumented migrants are sexually assaulted on their journey across the border. Immigration policy that continues to endanger vulnerable peoples’ lives does not eliminate injustice from the food system, but perpetuates cruelty.

The United States does not protect the labor rights of undocumented workers. Resultantly, undocumented farmworkers make an average salary of $11,000 per year. Their work with pesticides leads them to suffer from toxic chemical injuries, eye injuries, and skin disorders. The physical nature of the job, combined with monetary incentive for speed, leads to musculoskeletal injuries in 20% of farmworkers. Furthermore, 90% of farmworkers do not have employer-provided health insurance and risk termination of their jobs if they miss work for health care. Once again, policy that purposely excludes agricultural workers from labor standards does not eliminate injustice from the food system, but perpetuates cruelty.

Ivory-Coast-Chocolate-Child-Labor-Slavery

Cocoa farm child labor on the Ivory Coast.

Outside the United States, human trafficking, slavery, and child labor occur in the chocolate industry. In West Africa, where 70% of the world’s cocoa originates, children handle chainsaws, carry 100-pound bags of cacao bean pods, and reveal scars from machete use. This isn’t a rare occurrence; “[a]pproximately 1.8 million children in the Ivory Coast and Ghana may be exposed to the worst forms of child labor on cocoa farms.” One child, Amadou, enslaved in an Ivory Coast cocoa farm explained:

When people eat chocolate, they are eating my flesh.

Once again, international trade that allows for and supports human trafficking, slavery, and child labor does not eliminate injustice from the food system, but instead perpetuates cruelty.

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As the evidence supports, “cruelty-free” eating claimed by some vegans is not cruelty-free due to the extensive human impacts of the global food system*. In the United States, unprotected farmworkers face lethal and unhealthy environmental conditions with difficult barriers to justice. Beyond the United States, cruelty towards humans is evident in the chocolate industry as one case example. Justice and the ideology behind “cruelty-free” must expand to the farmworkers producing our food in order achieve a sustainable food system.

*As a clarification, this post does not serve to discourage people from plant-based diets. Plant-based diets undoubtedly reduce cruelty to animals by permanently boycotting the animal agroindustry. However, those that do practice plant-based diets as ethical vegans should recognize their food is not entirely cruelty-free, should not label their diets as cruelty-free, and should continue expanding their moral obligation to humans producing food under unjust conditions so that the ethical vegans can, one day, call their food truly “cruelty-free.”

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