Written by Pan Demetrakakes for the April 2012 issue of Specialty Coffee Retailer Magazine. Read and comment on the story and subscribe to the publication on their website by clicking here. World Coffee Research is the collaborative research and development program of the Borlaug Institute and the global coffee industry to grow, protect, and enhance supplies of quality coffee while helping to improve the lives of the families who produce it. Learn more at WorldCoffeeResearch.org.
At different times throughout world history, various commodities like wheat, coal and oil have been in danger (or thought to be in danger) of running out.
Is it time to add specialty coffee to the list?
On the face of it, there seems to be little cause for concern. Global coffee production, while fluctuating somewhat, has risen overall since 2000, reaching 132.4 million bags in the 2011/12 growing season, according to the International Coffee Organization. This is an 8 percent increase over 2009, and 18 percent over 2000.
On the other hand, when it comes to specialty coffee, there are some warning signs. Coffee crops have fallen in countries that have become centers of premium coffee production, like Colombia (down 32 percent in the last five seasons), Guatemala (down 13 percent) and Kenya (down 9 percent). Various short-term conditions, such as political turmoil in Kenya and mudslides in Colombia, have been tabbed as factors in these declines. But some observers think a longer-term, and far more ominous, trend is playing out.
Coffee professionals should be “very concerned,” says Tim Schilling, executive director of World Coffee Research, an organization set up through Texas A&M University to study issues in coffee sustainability. “Demand is increasing steadily and production is just not keeping up. That alone is something to be concerned about.”
The supply problem is magnified for the highest-quality Arabica coffee because of the conditions under which it must be grown. The Arabica coffee plant is notoriously sensitive to growing conditions; one coffee writer called it “the Barbra Streisand of plants: a diva.” It requires warm days and cool nights, heavy rain that alternates with dry spells, and above all (so to speak), an elevation of at least 5,400 feet.
These requirements leave high-quality Arabica production vulnerable to climate variation. And over the long term, some observers fear, that is exactly what will happen. If it isn’t already.
“The fact that climate change is looming as a major global threat to Arabica supply and to the quality of that supply is the major reason I think that, now, everybody should be concerned,” Schilling says. “This is not going to go away tomorrow or even in 10 years from now.”
The problem is compounded because the quality of coffee depends on subtle flavor interactions that can be disrupted by changes in growing conditions, even if the overall output stays mostly the same.
“Higher quality Arabicas are especially vulnerable,” Schilling says. “That’s because as temperature increases (and it IS increasing), the metabolism of the plant also increases, and the filling of the coffee cherry goes faster, which reduces the ability of the plant to assemble all the volatile and storage compounds in their best configuration to yield the best flavor characteristics.”
Such conditions are already taking place in regions across the world that supply high-quality specialty coffee. Players in the supply chain who deal directly with growers report that they’re beginning to express concern.
“Over the last four or five years nearly every farmer in every country I work with has experienced climate events that they’ve described as completely out of whack,” Geoff Watts, who helped found the Intelligensia coffeehouse in Chicago, told Goodmagazine. Disruptions in rain patterns have caused or exacerbated problems like coffee rust, a form of fungus that attacks coffee plants in warm, moist conditions.
Schilling agrees. “I was recently at the RAMA CAFÉ event in Nicaragua, which attracted hundreds of producers from Central and South America,” he says. “I talked to many growers and listened to even more of them and they are basically saying that the effects of climate change that we (researchers) talk about happening in 30 years, is already happening on their plantations.” He adds that it’s unknown how much of this is due to isolated climate events as opposed to long-term, permanent climate change, but climate change is more of a concern to growers than ever.
In many regions, the land available to grow specialty Arabica is shrinking. When the climate gets warmer, growers literally have to retreat up the mountain—until they run out of room.
“In the specialty realm, there’s only so much land as you go up the mountain. If climate change increases the temperature for the farmer and the farmer needs to move uphill, as you go uphill, there’s less and less land,” says Alex Morgan, manager for North America for Sustainable Agriculture at the Rainforest Alliance. “I think it’s a very, very real threat for the specialty industry, and I think more and more, consumers, roasters and importers are really going to have to start thinking about how we address this as an industry.”
The problem, however, is easier to describe than to solve. Part of the challenge in dealing with climate change is that the very concept is controversial; it has become a political football.
“I think the bottom line for most of us is that we can’t do much about the phenomenon even if it is real,” says David Greene, president of Greene Bros. Specialty Coffee, a roaster based in Hackettstown, N.J. “The discussion, moreover, has become politicized and degraded to tiresome ideological ‘digging in’ … like religious dogmatism.”
Even some who concede the reality of global warming are unsure that it has a direct short-term impact on production.
“I believe there’s global warming, but you know, you can go back 300 years and look at the weather patterns and how they wax and wane,” says Gerald Kalal, owner of K. Dees Coffee and Roasting Co., Lafayette, Ind. “I think a lot of this is hype built up to try and increase prices.”
Given the controversial nature of the global warming issue, it’s unsurprising that the response of the U.S. and other governments has been very slow—too slow, in some opinions.
“Measures to reduce greenhouse gases and restore them to ‘acceptable’ levels is indeed a painfully slow process,” Schilling says. “The good news is that companies and governments are moving in the right direction. The bad news is that at the rate they’re going, it might be too late. It’s going to take much more political and business will than we have now to move the needle where it needs to be.”
HOW TO HELP?
Given that situation, what, if anything, can roasters, retailers and others in the coffee business do to help?
World Coffee Research has the goal of developing hardier coffee plants that can, literally, take the heat.
“Given the rate of carbon footprint reduction on a global scale, I think retailers need to look at supporting scientific research that can sustain the supply of high quality Arabica coffees while the effect of ‘greening up’ starts to impact the production environments for coffee,” Schilling says. “What I’m talking about it is the World Coffee Research effort to develop new, heat tolerant, ‘climate change resistant’ coffee varieties so that as temperature increases, productivity and quality are not compromised and producers can stay where they are without moving up the mountain and continue to produce great coffee for their markets and get good prices.”
For their part, retailers should be open to paying more attention to environmental issues, Morgan says.
“For roasters and retailers, I think you’re mostly looking at three things,” he says. “First is really doing a full-scale assessment of your own supply chain, and figuring out where the impacts are. From the assessments that I’ve seen, the biggest impacts are at retail and on farms. So there are two areas that I would recommend that they address most specifically. And to do so, really getting back to the farm, and through the climate model and other approaches, really looking at having a positive impact on climate. And then at retail, it’s mostly about energy consumption and also probably some other areas that could be tackled, like water usage.”