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Friday, 24 August, 2001, 09:24 GMT 10:24 UK
Globalisation and me
Coffee - cash commodity and morning pick-me-up
Coffee - the second largest globally traded commodity
By Jeremy Newson, Producer of Tales from the Global Economy, which starts Sunday 26th Aug, 1720 BST on BBC Two

Why did I get up at five am one misty morning late in 1999, having slept all night in a bullock shed to stumble at dawn through desert countryside with 2000 Indian villagers trying to avoid police roadblocks on the way to a half-built dam site?

And why, a month later, did I drive 11,000 feet up in the Andes along a precipitous dirt track in a truck with the baldest tyres I've ever seen?

Well, the view of the sun rising over the Narmada river was spectacular and the whispers of thousands of people tiptoeing along with me was hypnotic, and the death defying truck journey certainly got the adrenaline pumping.

Dam protest

But I was in India to see a protest against the building of the Narmada dam, and I was on the dirt track in Peru to find where a gourmet Fair Trade Arabica coffee is grown.

I'm no Indiana Jones, I was nearly sick sleeping in the bullock shed and I'm not an activist. I'm a TV producer and I'd talked my way into both situations.

In the shadows of Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas
On the dirt track in Peru to find where a gourmet Fair Trade Arabica coffee is grown

I'd suggested to BBC's Mark Thompson months earlier that I make a series with the tag line 'we're all involved in the global economy whether we know it or not'.

As an Arts producer, I suggested my explorations would be a learning curve on behalf of viewers.

He said yes... go. And then my troubles began.


It is all very well claiming I was going to reveal the strange and unexpected global connections and links between people totally unaware of each others existence, but how do you show this? The phrase 'bitten off more than you can chew' increasingly sprang to mind in the following months.

Globalisation is a vast, complex, almost unknowable subject, but very much in people's minds these days. As a producer, the question was to bring it to life and show our own personal involvement without dryly talking about the WTO, IMF, or MAI - all those acronyms of grey international bureaucracies.

Questions over coffee

Sitting in a coffee house in Soho, I began to wonder where does this coffee come from, how does it get here? What does it actually look like when it's growing?

In a supermarket I saw shelves with coffee from all over the world... Jamaica, Columbia, Puerto Rico, Java, Kenya, and wondered how each time I chose a package of roast and ground or ordered a cup of coffee I was involving myself in the global economy or the economy of some country somewhere on the globe.

Traders on the Coffee, Sugar and Cocoa Exchange in NY
Frenzied trading of coffee in units of 38,500 pounds without a coffee bean in sight
Later, in the shadows of Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas I learnt the answers to these questions and more and unravelled the amazing journey of two coffee beans from crop to cup.

I didn't know that coffee only grows in a narrow band around the equator... the coffee belt... there are two types of coffee: Robusta (which is used in instant coffee and only grows below 1500 meters) and Arabica (which is a finer coffee which only grows above 1500 meters).

I was amazed to discover that coffee grows as two green beans inside a bright red cherry, the finest coffee is hand-picked by small poor farmer, subject to weather and market fluctuations and can pass through as many as fifty hands on its way to my cup each making a buck on the way, except the farmers.

Frenzied trading

All Arabica coffee is traded on the coffee, sugar and cocoa exchange in New York where in frenzied trading pits producers, roasters and scalpers shout at the top of their voices and wave their hands frantically trading future contracts of coffee in units of 38,500 pounds without a coffee bean in sight.

Now the coffee price has fallen to an all time low. And that is due to Vietnam (of all places) quickly becoming the second largest producer of coffee in the world.

I became aware of many ironies, the more popular the drink becomes, the less we drink. The kitchen sink used to be the biggest consumer of coffee as millions of gallons of stale office sludge got poured away. Now we nurse our frappuccino twice a day.

It is also ironic that as we are prepared to pay more and more for a lifestyle product, the world price has plummeted so farmers can't even make back the costs of production.

If coffee becomes uneconomic for small farmers to grow, they might turn to another crop that flourishes in the same particular climactic conditions, Cocaine.

I watched expert tasters judging coffees like fine wine, trying to find the perfect roast, grind, pressure and temperature to transform a tasteless indigestible green bean containing over 2000 chemicals into the rich dark pearls we know....and finally transformed by the art of the barista into a legally addictive stimulant.

Oh, yes and the dawn march in India? That's a whole other story told in our third programme of our series.

Tales from the Global Economy includes 'The Cappuccino Trail', transmitted on BBC Two on 26 August at 1920 BST, 'Greenspan Alert' transmitted on 2 September at 1820 BST, 'Where's Our Money' transmitted on 9 September at 1910 BST, and 'The Business of Christmas', transmitted on 16 September at 1840 BST.

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