Whether it’s a quickly chugged-down morning cup, a lukewarm afternoon jolt from the coffee machine at work, a pumpkin spiced latte in the fall or a specialty cold brew in the summer, coffee has cemented itself as an important ritual in the lives of many Americans.
But what the latest generation of coffee lovers may not know is that the coffee industry is in crisis. Even as we get used to what seems like an ever-expanding range of coffees, this diversity of taste and flavor could disappear. Poverty, the impact of climate change and the spread of disease are driving small coffee farmers out of business ― and leaving your morning brew in the hands of mass producers.
Once diversity is gone, it won’t be replenished. Earlier this year, researchers revealed that 60% of all wild coffee species are under threat of extinction due to deforestation, climate change, and the increasing severity of fungal pathogens and pests.
The result will be consumers waking up in the morning to far less choice, warned Peter Kettler, a senior coffee manager at Fairtrade International, which works to protect the interests of farmers in lower-income countries. That would be a loss, he said. “I think there’s a lot of people today who are looking to coffee for more than just a caffeine delivery service.”
Coffee is big business, worth around $90 billion globally. Americans drink more than 400 million cups every day and U.S. coffee consumption has increased by nearly 3% over the past four years. Global production also continues to rise, led by Brazil and Vietnam, which together already produce more than half of all the coffee in the world.
But an oversupply has helped push global coffee prices close to their lowest level in a decade. With dropping prices, farmers ― particularly those operating the small farms that make up much of production in developing countries like Honduras and Burundi ― are struggling to stay afloat.
According to Fairtrade, around 60% of producers are now selling their coffee at prices below the cost of production. Today’s market price of less than $1 per pound is significantly below the $1.20 to $1.50 that Kettler said growers in poorer countries such as Honduras need to break even.
Low prices mean small farmers have less ability to protect their crops against rising climate threats such as more frequent and longer-lasting droughts and the spread and growing severity of devastating fungal pathogens, including coffee leaf rust and coffee wilt disease.
The double whammy of grinding poverty and climate change is reportedly driving Latin American coffee growers to leave home and emigrate northwards in search of employment. While small farms in poorer countries like Honduras go out of business, Kettler said the bigger operations in Brazil and Vietnam are becoming more dominant.
In some parts of the world, he said, “coffee is grown in mountainous regions where large-scale coffee farms can’t be developed. These farmers can’t compete or adapt as well” to threats like climate change and disease.
Big Agriculture tends to embrace the commercial benefits of monoculture: In the short term, it can be more efficient to grow a lot of a smaller range of plants. The global coffee trade currently relies on only two species: Arabica, which makes up around 60% of the coffee produced, and Robusta, which accounts for around 40%.
But those coffee species that the large operations ignore and that are at risk of extinction could be key to the world’s future coffee supply. To breed resistance to climate and disease threats, researchers say other coffee species are likely to be needed.
“It’s like we had a library of books and burnt most of them.”
This extinction story, and the damage it brings, is not limited to coffee. Diversity is narrowing across our food system. Despite the existence of an estimated 30,000 plant species that humans could eat, 60% of our plant-based calories come from just three: wheat, corn and rice.
Globally, 90%-95% of vegetables and 80%-90% of fruits have already gone extinct since 1950, according to “Lost Feast,” a new book by Lenore Newman, a professor in food security and the environment at the University of the Fraser Valley, Canada.
“It’s like we had a library of books and burnt most of them,” Newman told HuffPost.
The first step in solving this problem is recognizing the value of diversity, Newman said. “Shrinking the gene pool” doesn’t just mean a loss of tastes and flavors, she said, but also a loss of species with which to fight climate change and disease.
Newman pointed to the devasting impact of banana monoculture. The Cavendish banana, which accounts for virtually all those eaten in the U.S., is now under threat from two devastating diseases. But because large growers have invested so heavily in just one type of banana, there are no other types resistant to these diseases that they can easily switch to.
Retailers, governments and consumers should be encouraging and supporting local production of food. “Seasonal and regional production is crucial for maintaining diversity, rather than always relying on food shipped around the world,” said Newman. “Individuals should try to support anyone growing food in their neighborhood as they are the ones maintaining that diversity.”
For coffee, any lasting solution must include getting more of the money consumers pay for their latte back into the farmers’ pockets, said Kettler. “The coffee market was set up as a way of extracting as much money as possible from the Global South,” he said. “It works on a commercial level as it’s generating revenue, but it’s skewed against farmers.”
Kettler pointed to a report published this month by economics professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University that called for minimum prices for coffee growers and assistance to help them sell directly to consumers. With more revenue, those farmers would be better able to adapt to the threats of climate change and more willing to keep growing coffee.
Alternatively, if we sit back and let more coffee producers go out of business, then we’ll wake up to a future of far more limited choice. “Unless something changes,” Kettler said, “in 20 years you’ll only have two choices of coffee when we walk into a cafe: Brazilian or Vietnamese.”
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