Take Away Coffee: The cost of climate change on the world’s coffee industry
By Andrew Broadley | Illustration by Yi Jong
Being a part time writer for a student magazine doesn’t have many benefits. While I won’t
be entering the housing market anytime soon, it does offer me a flexibility that I cherish. Most
mornings I lazily stroll into the city and dine in at a local cafe, sipping my morning coffee and
eavesdropping on the nearest conversation to me. This lifestyle has meant that my keepcup
goes largely unused as I am rarely in enough of a rush to grab my coffee takeaway.
Coffee is an integral part of my day. It’s an integral part of the day for basically everyone I
know. An addiction that most of us are willing to accept because for some reason it’s just socially
acceptable to be wired AF on caffeine if it comes in the form of a long black, but not if it comes
in the form of several cans of Monster energy drinks (or maybe it’s just the snapback and ute
with the muffler removed that people don’t like?). Anyway, long (black) story short, the world
consumes around 500 billion cups of coffee a year and that only looks set to increase. The
problem is, the production of coffee looks to do the opposite.
Climate change. The mate that seems to pop up just about everywhere these days and no
matter the scenario, is pretty much always a dick. When I heard of this impending coffee
crisis it was no surprise that climate change was at the forefront of it. All over the planet
our climate is warming, our seasons are flip flopping more than Judith Collins and her
border stance, and we are regularly seeing weather more extreme than the policies of the
New Conservative Party. This is causing huge issues in huge ways. Islands sinking, indigenous communities seeing the eradication of their culture and way of life, food crops wiped out, lives lost in hurricanes and droughts and worst of all (definitely not worst of all) our coffee is at risk. It can be hard to talk to people about climate change when we are sitting pretty in our western bubble of privilege. When climate change is impacting developing nations on another continent we don’t seem to care too much (a whole other issue), but we do care about our coffee.
See, the coffee plant is a particularly finicky one. It needs temperatures between 18-21 degrees celsius to be happy. Too hot and the beans are all blehh, too cold and they freeze. It also needs a specific amount of rain but it also needs a 3 month dry season. It needs warm days and cool nights so grows best at a certain elevation (1,000-2,000 metres above sea) and it needs all this TLC for around 3-4 years before you will even get your first lot of coffee beans. All of those conditions together means that coffee grows best between latitude 25°N and 30°S and better yet, in the mountains of Colombia.
Colombia, in particular the Zona Cafetera, has long been seen as the crème de la crème of coffee production. This region has long been the home to some of the finest coffee, with an environment crafted so perfectly for coffee production it’s enough to convince you God himself wakes up with a cup of the good stuff. And this has been integral to Colombia for decades. During the 1920s, America fell in love with coffee, and Colombia (along with Brazil) were tasked with meeting this new demand. In Colombia large plantations established during the rule of the Spanish called haciendas were used to intensively grow coffee. They were worked by labourers, indigenous communities and former slaves who worked in horrific conditions while the owners saw huge profits. That was until the US stock market crashed in 1929 and along with it, the demand for coffee. The plantations were bankrupted and the Colombian government saw one of their key industries (they were the second largest exporters of coffee in the world) collapsing. So they stepped in. They bought out all the owners of these plantations, divided them up into small farms, and sold them off cheaply to local growers. The idea was these growers could grow coffee alongside several other crops and provide security for themselves when one crop saw demand crash or prices fluctuate. It also meant that more profit was going to the actual growers themselves. This was a huge success and as the market recovered, Colombia’s industry thrived once again, only this time small scale farmers were seeing the profits.
But now, several decades later, Colombian growers are struggling once again. The Zona Cafetera, God’s very own roastery, has warmed by 1.2 degrees since 1980, enough to shift the entire ideal growing elevation further up the mountain and enough to leave behind many of the farmers that hold land at lower elevations. It is predicted to continue warming by about 0.3 degrees per decade and subsequently continue to push the growers higher up the mountain. And that’s not all. The warmer weather has provided excellent breeding grounds for fungi and bacteria, particularly coffee rust, which can wipe out entire crops. Particularly troublesome when replanting means you have to wait 3-4 years before getting your first harvest. But climate change isn’t just warming. The sought after 3 month dry season is a thing of the past. Either it lasts too long, or not long enough. Sometimes it comes early, or late, or not at all and sometimes the crops suffer from drought where other times intense rain washes away the nutrients needed. Colombia has already seen the amount of land used for coffee production shrink by more than 7% in the last 7 years alone. And it’s not only Colombia, it is predicted that by 2050 the land used for coffee production will have shrunk by half worldwide. It is not only bad news for our cultivated coffee, but the wild coffee too. Already today, 65% of wild coffee varieties are endangered. Many of these are used to cross breed with our current coffee crops (Arabica and Robusta) and it is hoped they will be able to create more resistant beans, integral to the future of coffee production.
There are some ways that these effects can be mitigated. These farmers can keep moving uphill and do their best to outrun the effects. They can plant shade trees among the crops to help keep the plants cool. Or they can invest in planting new varieties of beans that will be more resistant to these harsher conditions. The issue is all of these solutions cost money, money these growers don’t have.
But hang on, I thought Colombia's coffee revolution was a huge success? Well it was. The growers were thriving and by 1962, 69 countries had agreed to a price minimum that would ensure the export of coffee would always fetch a fair price and these growers would continue to thrive. The Zona Cafetera was even a tourism magnet for Colombia. But as demand for coffee grew and coffee chains popped up all over the place, other countries wanted to get among the profits. Countries began to flood the market with cheaper coffee in an attempt to get their beans into the mix and the previously agreed upon price minimum collapsed. Now there was a bidding war to secure lucrative deals with these new coffee chains and companies. This naturally drove the cost of coffee down. Better to sell to Starbucks on the cheap than to not sell at all, right? And you may be thinking well that’s great, cheaper coffee for me! But when you go to buy your cup of coffee the actual cost of the coffee itself is likely not even 50 cents. What you are paying for is the rent and the staff and if you are getting takeaway, the coffee cup itself. And of course, the mark up (they have to make a profit). The cost of coffee beans has little impact on the cost of your coffee. But it does have a huge impact on the coffee growers themselves, who are being forced to sell their beans at unrealistically low prices or else they risk their customers going elsewhere.
By 2050 the land used for coffee production will have shrunk by half worldwide.
Today, the export price of coffee is actually sitting below what is considered by many growers to be the break even point. These farmers are literally losing money. And as climate change makes it even harder for them, more and more of them are going to leave the industry behind and as they do, your daily coffee is going to get closer and closer to the equivalent of your daily caviar. Absurd, expensive, and a habit you really ought to quit. And this isn’t just bad for your caffeine kick, it’s really bad for these growers. 85% of the world’s coffee is grown by around 25 million small scale farmers, many of whom are living in poverty. This is their livelihood, this is all they have. Coffee production is considered to be one of the most valuable exports for developing nations and the collapse of the industry is once again going to impact these poorer nations much more than it will us. These farmers are doing everything they can to survive, but we really aren’t making it easy. And this can also have some serious side effects. Like the Zona Cafetera, many areas in Asia are no longer ideal for coffee growth. Climate change has shifted much of Asia’s coffee growing region into what is now dense forest. Forest that is likely to be wiped clear in an effort to sustain the industry, once again impacting our climate as a whole.
So what can you do to help? Well, do all the regular things to combat climate change in general. Vote for political parties with good climate policy, be mindful of your own carbon footprint, support sustainable industries and sign annoying petitions to ban bad practices. In order to support the coffee industry more specifically, ask your local cafe where they are getting their beans. Are they fair trade and are the farmers getting a fair price? If you plunge at home, make sure you are buying beans that are also meeting these standards. And be sure to support small and local cafes instead of big chains that are largely responsible for squeezing these growers profits to breaking point in the first place. Because almost all of us love coffee, but if you want your coffee to stick around for as long as your keepcup, we need to ensure that we are supporting the industry, not just your barista.