Civet Cof­fee, Bird Drop­pings and the Dis­gust-De­sire Scale

The Economic Times - - Saturday Feature/ Economy -

The most likely re­ac­tion to the news that In­dia is pro­duc­ing pre­mium cof­fee made from beans eaten and ex­creted by civet cats will be dis­gust – and, oddly enough, that’s just what the producers want. Most prod­ucts aim to first fit con­sumer com­fort lev­els, and then be liked by them, but civet cof­fee, as it is called, does the op­po­site. Its brand ap­peal is built on dis­com­fort and dis­gust. We would nor­mally find the idea of con­sum­ing any­thing fae­cal ab­so­lutely re­pel­lent, yet civet cof­fee is a prof­itable in­dus­try.

It orig­i­nated in In­done­sia. Af­ter the Dutch es­tab­lished cof­fee plan­ta­tions there in the 18th cen­tury it was no­ticed that the na­tive palm civets, small ar­bo­real mam­mals, liked the sweet cof­fee berries. They would eat the fruit and ex­crete the seeds, which are the cof­fee beans, and at some point th­ese were col­lected, cleaned and roasted to make cof­fee, known as kopi luwak.

It is this process that is be­ing recre­ated in In­dia. Civets are found here too and, ac­cord­ing to re­ports, some cof­fee producers now want to use them to make an In­dian ver­sion of kopi luwak. Naren­dra Heb­bar, who runs a start-up called Coorg Con­sol­i­dated Cof­fee, was quoted say­ing they want to name this Coorg Luwark Cof­fee. Heb­bar hopes to har­vest half a tonne this year, which is quite an in­crease from 60 kgs pro­duced in 2015-16 and 200 kgs last year. In Amer­i­can scholar Wil l i a m I a n Mil ler ’s study The Anatomy of Disg ust he di f fer­en­ti­ates be­tween how “the dis­gust of sur­feit makes the once al­lur­ing now dis­gust­ing, while the dis­gust of re­ac­tion for­ma­tion uses dis­gust to cre­ate de­sire, or if not pre­cisely to cre­ate it, then surely to aug­ment it to those dam-break­ing lev­els.” Civet cof­fee would seem to be an ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple of the sec­ond cat­e­gory, where ini­tial dis­gust at the idea op­er­ates to make the ap­peal even stronger. The prob­lem is that ev­i­dence for any such spe­cial f lavour is rather elu­sive. Re­search on kopi luwak shows that the civet’s gas­tric juices do af­fect the beans, but eval­u­at­ing what this means for the flavour is com­pli­cated by what could be called the wine la­bel ef­fect.

This is the find­ing, con­firmed re­peat­edly by re­search, that when peo­ple think they are drink­ing a fine bot­tle of wine they au­to­mat­i­cally rate it bet­ter, re­gard­less of the ac­tual qual­ity of the wine. Flavour is a phys­i­cal sen­sa­tion, but clearly men­tal ex­pec­ta­tions play a role too. Kopi luwak may have been a lo­cal odd­ity, treated al­most as a joke in the cof­fee in­dus­try.

But when that odd­ity came to wider at­ten­tion, play­ing on the dis­gust-de­sire ap­peal out­lined by Miller, it be­came a sel­f­re­in­forc­ing trend. As is of­ten the case, Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture played a key role. Kopi luwak was men­tioned in the film The Bucket List, as some­thing peo­ple had to try be­fore they died, and it has fea­tured in sev­eral TV shows. De­mand for kopi luwak started ris­ing and as the prices peo­ple paid for it rose, it be­came eas­ier to per­suade them that it re­ally did taste bet­ter.

The ris­ing prices were also an in­cen- in ele­phant dung.”

In re­al­ity, of course, the sell­ing point is the pleas­ant fris­son that con­sumers get when they use a prod­uct they know was once dung. It’s sim­i­lar to the pel­lets soaked in lion urine that are sold in the USA as cat re­pel­lent. Again, there is prof­fered logic: cats are ter­ri­to­rial and mark bound­aries with urine, so when they sense a re­ally big cat they run away. But who can doubt that us­ing lion urine has its own ap­peal?


Some prod­ucts de­rived from an­i­mal wastes do have prac­ti­cal value. Cow prod­ucts are a spe­cial case due to their link with re­li­gion in In­dia, but in one case they found a wider mar­ket. In the 18th cen­tury a pig­ment named In­dian Yel­low be­came pop­u­lar with Euro­pean artists for pro­vid­ing a vivid yel­low. This was found to be made from the urine of cows fed mango leaves in Bi­har, but the prac­tice died out in the 1920s, partly be­cause of the avail­abil­ity of syn­thetic pig­ments. Am­ber­gris is a fatty sub­stance used in per­fumery, both for its own dis­tinc­tive odour and its abil­ity to ‘fix’ other aro­mas into last­ing scents. Marco Polo was one of the first to dis­cover and de­scribe its strange ori­gin: “voided from the en­trails of whales”. Cer­tain species of whales live on squid, which are bone­less, ex­cept for their sharp beaks. Whales con­vert th­ese in their guts into the sub­stance that be­comes am­ber­gris when it is vom­ited out by liv­ing whales, or emerges from the car­casses of dead ones. It is col­lected on sea shores and is hugely valu­able, but hard to har­vest in any prac­ti­cal way. Guano is per­haps the an­i­mal waste that had the big­gest im­pact on his­tory. Th­ese de­posits made by sea-birds in their roost­ing colonies on re­mote co­ral is­lands, were found to be very rich in phos­phates that made it an ex­tremely ef fec­tive fer ti lizer. Reg­u­lar bi rd drop­pings, for ex­am­ple from chick­ens, weren’t as use­ful – it re­quired a com­bi­na­tion of the diet of sea-birds of min­eral rich fish from co­ral reefs that were sub­ject to the heat and des­ic­cat­ing power of trop­i­cal suns.

Guano was used by peo­ple like the In­cas in Peru for ages, but farm­ers across the world only be­came of its fer­til­iz­ing prop­er­ties in the early 19th cen­tury. This was ex­actly the time when large-scale farming was tak­ing off, with plan­ta­tions and the gi­ant farms of the Amer­i­can Mid­west. Guano fer­til­iz­ers were a huge boon for such farm­ers and it set off a fran­tic hunt for re­mote guano is­lands. The real guano grab was made by the USA in the Pa­cific. In 1856 the US Congress passed the Guano Is­lands Act that au­tho­rised Amer­i­can cit­i­zens to take pos­ses­sion of any un­claimed is­lands that might con­tain guano. The re­sult was the sud­den ad­di­tion to the USA of a num­ber of is­lands that would come to play a crit­i­cal role dur­ing World War II in the fight against Ja­pan.

The other ef­fect of guano min­ing was to fo­cus at­ten­tion on the bird colonies that had pro­duced th­ese rather strange riches, but which were be­ing dec­i­mated by the ex­trac­tion. In time this would con­trib­ute to the growth of the en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment. Per­haps any use of an­i­mal wastes must fo­cus at­ten­tion on the an­i­mals that pro­duce them. Kopi luwak’s grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity has had one aw­ful side ef­fect – to cater to the grow­ing de­mand it is in­creas­ingly be­ing pro­duced not from wild but caged civets. Th­ese an­i­mals which in the wild are used to roam­ing widely, are cooped up and force fed cof­fee berries. This has caused a back­lash against kopi luwak, with some of its early im­porters in the West re­nounc­ing any­thing to do with the cof­fee.

It is not clear how In­dian producers are plan­ning to in­crease the scale of civet cof­fee pro­duc­tion in In­dia. Hope­fully they will avoid us­ing caged civets – but it is some­thing that an­i­mal pro­tec­tion agen­cies should con­sider mon­i­tor­ing. And con­sumers might ask them­selves if it is re­ally worth buy­ing a prod­uct whose ac­tual taste ben­e­fits are du­bi­ous, sim­ply to get a thrill on the dis­gust-de­sire scale.

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