Luigi Guarino | Director of Science and Programs

The Economist’s writers are by and large a pretty hard-nosed lot. I guess it’s in their job description. So this final paragraph in an article on neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) the paper published a few months back really struck me:

It is worth recalling the motivation for Merck’s original decision, back in 1987, to donate ivermectin for river blindness, says Mr Gustavsen. [1] There was no economic rationale: the firm’s scientists simply felt it was the right thing to do. Having discovered the drug, and established that it worked against a disease that caused awful suffering, neglecting to use it would have been “incredibly demoralising”, he says. That sense of moral purpose must not weaken if the global coalition against NTDs is finally to prevail.

Wow. So it’s not always just down to dollars and cents with these people after all. A huge drug company – with vocal shareholders and fancy accountants and expensive lawyers – saw no economic rationale for doing something, but went ahead and did it anyway. Because it was the right thing to do. And The Economist goes and praises its moral purpose, no less, and in fact calls for more.

Now, I’m not saying that going without coffee is in any way comparable to the suffering caused by river blindness. But 125 million people in over seventy countries around the world count on coffee one way or another to make ends meet – to buy food and medicines and clothes and pay school fees. And those livelihoods are threatened, because of what climate change, pests and diseases are expected to do to the yield and quality of the crop. What they’re already doing, in fact.

Sure, some companies are taking action. A lot of coffee trees are old and need to be replanted anyway. No doubt recognizing the long-term threat to its bottom line, Starbucks has pledged to donate 100 million healthy coffee plants to farmers by 2025. Most welcome, I’m sure. But where did those plants come from?

Trace them back in time and space and you’ll eventually end up in one of a handful of coffee genebanks, maybe that of CATIE in Costa Rica. Go further back, and you land in the forests of Africa. And, like topical diseases such as river blindness, both of these have been neglected too over the years. The long-term future of coffee depends on reversing that trend, and investing in the genebanks and forest communities that now struggle against the odds to safeguard the genetic base of the crop.

We know what we need to do. Together with World Coffee Research, we at the Crop Trust have been working with coffee genebanks to put together a strategy for the conservation of coffee genetic resources. Now we need to get it funded, and we think the companies whose business depends on coffee should pitch in. It makes financial sense. But it’s also the right thing to do.


[1] Ken Gustavsen runs corporate responsibility for Merck.

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