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Sunday, July 24, 2005

Tracing Coffee's Troubled Past and Present

Boston.com -- Antony Wild's ''Coffee" is as rich and complex as the brew itself. It is the pointed, entertaining, and disturbing chronicle of a drink that in the United States alone generates an annual market of $19 billion, with 161 million consumers serviced by 150,000 full-time workers.

Wild's signal accomplishment is to show how economics and ecology intertwine in the coffee trade. A coffee trader himself, he suggests both are tainted by US policy.

While the transnational firms that dominate the world coffee trade -- Procter & Gamble, Sara Lee, Nestle, and Philip Morris -- report record profits and sales, small coffee growers are suffering, Wild says. The biggest culprit: the US-led reforestation of Vietnam to grow Robusta, a strain inferior to the more delicate and aromatic Arabica. Vietnamese Robusta is flooding the market and depressing coffee prices worldwide in the name of capitalist success US-style, Wild suggests.

Wild connects the bean to alchemy, Sufi mysticism in Yemen, to empire-building, and to the roots of insurrection. Not only does he link the ''dark, bitter-sweet mystery of real coffee" to Napoleon's last outpost on St. Helena, he suggests it led to intellectual evolution in 17th-century Europe by way of what he calls ''Coffee House Man" and may have stimulated revolutionary movements in France and the United States. One way to interpret the Boston Tea Party, after all, is as a line in the sand forever linking England to tea, the United States to coffee.

Wild traces coffee from its 16th-century origins in Ethiopia to its current position as a leading export from Vietnam, where, he suggests, the United States' use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War may have poisoned the crop.

This is the story of an alluring seed that has been associated with colonialism and slavery. Wild's take on coffee growing in Vietnam and Colombia, where the coffee is better and grows year-round, is alarming.

Vietnam and Colombia are vying for second place after market leader Brazil. In Colombia, Roundup and Roundup Ultra, herbicides manufactured by Monsanto, one of the suppliers of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War, have been sprayed -- another reason, Wild suggests, that coffee growers are thrown out of work.

Although he claims the US-driven free-trade agenda subverts fair trade statutes designed to protect the small grower, Wild also savors coffee, particularly espresso.

But he deplores the dilution of espresso and particularly disdains Starbucks, which he considers an oppressive capitalist juggernaut particularly adept at branding.

''Like Italian cars, football, fashion, food, and film starlets, espresso coffee has acquired an unmistakable aura of Italian glamour. It combines precision engineering, voluptuous lines, impeccable style, and consummate showmanship, allowing its exponents to build an entire cafe culture around the process of making a cup of coffee," he writes. ''However, the Italian original has been repackaged to make it more acceptable to the modern international big-brand consumer. This has given rise to a cultural miscegenation adapted to the exigencies of modern marketing."

Wild's book will give you pause before your next cup.

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