The end of cheap coffee: why a staple is about to become a luxury
As rare coffee beans are becoming all the rage amongst the coffee intelligentsia around the world, all beans are becoming rarer. The price of a cup of coffee — from ultra high-end expresso to cafeteria swill — is being driven up by a complex combination of weather events, pest and fungus outbreaks, speculation on commodities exchanges, an unstable labour market in the developing world, and an unprecedented thirst for good coffee among a growing global middle class. The problem, in simple economic terms, is that supply has gone down and demand has gone up.
Arabica, the strain of coffee that makes up most of the world’s supply, is a notoriously fickle organism, “the Barbra Streisand of plants: a diva,” as coffee writer Taylor Clark told The New York Times.
To develop the complex flavours that drive coffee nerds wild, the best beans demand a lot from their surroundings: tropical climates with warm, sunny days that fade into chilly evenings; altitudes between 1,800 and 2,400 meters; copious rains at certain times of the year; dry spells at others. Low-quality Arabica is abundant throughout low-lying regions of Brazil, where one-third of all coffee comes from.
But just a few regions on Earth are hospitable to such a needy guest as the world’s best beans, which grow only in the high peaks of the tropics in East Africa, Central and South America, and Southeast Asia.
The delicate balance in those ecosystems is being thrown off kilter. In Colombia, the world’s third-biggest coffee producer, agricultural scientist Peter Baker has watched while record rainfall, increased heat, and frequent plagues have devastated farms across the country’s Andean coffee-growing region.
It was 2005 when Baker “started to think seriously that climate change was not just about the future but was already happening.” Today, the signs are plentiful. Average temperatures have risen nearly 2 degrees in some areas over the past 30 years, “especially night-time minimum temperatures,” says Baker, “a tell-tale signature of [man-made] climate change.”
Hotter, rainier weather nourishes pests and disease, particularly coffee rust, a fungal plague that’s ascended Colombia’s mountain peaks, which were formerly too chilly for the organism. Heavy rains damage Arabica’s delicate blossoms — the same blossoms that eventually turn into coffee cherries, whose seeds are coffee beans. As heat and pests climb Colombia’s mountains, “the lower limit at which coffee is grown is starting to go up,” says Baker. As growers move higher into the mountains, they run into another problem: mountains have tops.
“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,” says Geoff Watts, a founder of high-end coffee company, Intelligentsia, in Chicago 16 years ago. “And these are people that have been growing coffee on those farms for 20, 30, 40 years. ... They’re seeing rain when they had droughts before; they’re seeing droughts when they usually have a lot of rain. They’re seeing hail and frost in places where it didn’t exist before.” Extreme weather events “are happening simultaneously in every part of the coffee-growing world,” he adds.
The result? Between 2006 and 2009, the Colombian yield shrank by a quarter — from 12 million bags to 7.8 million, the lowest yield in 33 years. The forecast doesn’t look good for the rest of the coffee-growing world, either: more pests in East Africa, more hurricanes in Central America, more droughts in Indonesia. Global coffee stockpiles are close to record lows.
“There is simply not enough coffee in the world,” Jose Sette, now the former executive director of the International Coffee Organization, told Bloomberg in February. Combine this with other economic realities — the rising cost of fertilizer and the fact that young people, bound for the cities, aren’t following in their parents’ coffee-growing footsteps — and you can understand the term that Peter Baker has coined as a warning: “peak coffee.” Just like with oil, the world is maxing out the volume of coffee it can sustain.
Now Baker is trying to come up with “a toolbox of different methods” to help farmers cope with the rising temperature. But he says that researchers are only in the “early stages of thinking about what we can do for farmers that’s practical. At the moment a lot of people are taking measurements and looking at models and mapping out likely changes.”
A game-changing solution, like developing heat-tolerant hybrids, for example, will take at least 10 to 15 years, says Tim Schilling, executive director of the Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative.
While climate change’s harshest effects won’t be felt for two or three more decades, “it would not surprise me if one of these years we get a fairly serious drought” in a major coffee-producing country like Brazil, Baker says. “That could cause coffee scarcity for quite a prolonged period.”
Coffee production will continue to experience booms and busts, but Baker asserts that “in the long run, people will have to get used to drinking a bit less coffee.” Or paying a lot more for it.
Not long ago, coffee growers had the opposite problem. Coffee was dirt cheap and about as plentiful....