Our cup of coffee [and more] is at risk

av Walter del Castillo

We know right away when we run out of coffee at home or at the office. Coffee helps us start the day and accompanies us when we share moments with friends and family. Yet, considering our daily drinking ritual, it is surprising how little we know about coffee itself; where it comes from and those who produce it. Likewise, most of us are unaware of the tremendous global economic significance of coffee and its environmental impact.

Coffee is second only to Oil when it comes to commonly trade commodities globally[1]; it is worth USD 100 billion a year worldwide. This is more impressive considering that oil and its derivatives have numerous uses apart from gasoline. We drink coffee only and lots of it! Another interesting fact is the disconnection between coffee production and its consumption. The majority of coffee is produced by approximately 25 million smallholders. Most of them are poor and located at tropical sloped highlands between 500 and 1800 meters above sea level. Most coffee produced is Arabica and by far most coffee consumption takes place outside of the tropics, at distant and northern coffee shops and homes.

Coffee is big business, it comes from poor far-away tropical places and it is an important part of our urban lives. Efforts to empower farmers to get out of poverty, including different types of coffee certification, have had limited impact. Although "Fair trade coffee” is by far the most popular fair trade commodity in the world, it still represents a tiny portion of the global commodity market. At the same time, the average coffee farmer is increasingly older and their children want to learn and do other activities away from the countryside. Generational change among coffee farmers is becoming more difficult. This is another indication that the benefits from making a dignified living, out of a capital and labor intensive crop such as coffee, are not reaching most farmers yet.

A long time ago, I read a seminal article named “The hamburger connection”[2],where Norman Myers made a case of tropical deforestation in Central America due to North American demand for artificially cheap beef for the fast food industry. At that time, many thought that the effects of the hamburger connection could be fought against replacing extensive grassing for livestock with profitable and sustainable coffee agroforestry systems. That would at least slow down, if not stop the conversion of forest to annual-monocrop agriculture. Coffee would rescue the forest and empower farmers to come out of poverty. Well, results have been mixed for various reasons.

Today, coffee farmers are experiencing significant environmental and health hazards resulting from the irreversible effects of climate change and how farmers react to them. Every year, it becomes more difficult to cultivate coffee at lower altitudes than before. Some resourceful farmers can slowly move their plantation to higher altitudes, but for the large majority of them that is not an alternative and it is likely that they will end up abandoning coffee production altogether. To be able to make a living, these families will replace whatever agroforestry systems they had for extensive grazing operations for livestock or monocrops. As temperature rises, rain patterns become irregular - shorter and biodiversity decreases and the prevalence of pests becomes more frequent and widespread at coffee plantations. That presents a dilemma for coffee farmers, who are ill prepared to respond adequately to pests. They will buy, apply and mishandle any chemical available in order to ‘save’ this year’s crop and provide for their families today.

Although there is still a lot to be done to facilitate the fair flow of benefits from coffee trade to farmers, there are some good news. Exporters, importers and roasters are finally responding to climate change issues threating coffee. They have begun to offer technical assistance to farmers for reducing their vulnerability to environmental and health hazards associated to coffee farming. By doing so, companies and their respective foundations are contributing to keeping coffee stocks more or less stable and securing coffee for their business. NIRAS is proud of having supported the development of the coffee value chain globally; both technically and financially, on behalf of different development cooperation agencies. Currently, we continue to work on that regard, assessing environmental and health risks associated to coffee production methods; proposing an action plan and monitoring routines for pesticides use.

Having said that, consumers must also take responsibility to protect their cup of coffee. Let’s put aside for a minute all the numerous coffee certification available and instead focus on the convenient jar of instant coffee that many of us have taken home from the supermarket. That jar, made from Robusta coffee beans sourced from large coffee estates with full sun exposure using massive amounts of agrochemicals to reach the highest yields possible, represents the coffee equivalent to ground beef produced at extensive cattle farms described in Myer’s article.

Finally, it is possible to match sustainable coffee farming practices with farmers and business economic interests while adapting to and mitigating for climate change. It is clear that producers, traders and consumers must cooperate if the problems threatening coffee are to be solved. This is not a zero-sum game, but an opportunity to find a model of interdependent resource relationships within the international community.


[1] http://www.tradecommodities.co.uk/commodities/

[2] Myers, N. 1981. “The Hamburger Connection: How Central America’s Forests Become North America’s Hamburgers.”.