Is extinction the real coffee crisis?
The coffee bean is facing extinction. The news which broke last week was greeted with headlines such as “Coffee extinction: how will we cope?” and “Is your coffee facing extinction?”
But is this really the major crisis facing the coffee sector?
Scientists at Kew Gardens think so as they said that current conservation measures for wild coffee species were inadequate to ensure the long-term future of coffee production.
The British Coffee Association (BCA) said that ensuring the long-term resilience of coffee producers at origin was at the heart of the sustainability of businesses in the UK.
Chris Stemman, executive director of the BCA, told Coffee Business World: “While much progress has been made in encouraging the adoption of climate smart agricultural practices at farm level, the risks associated with changing climatic conditions, crop diseases, soil degradation, drought, unpredictable markets, and a multitude of local socio-cultural factors put the long-term sustainability of coffee producers at risk.”
He said improving global industry collaboration on projects that help support the adoption of good agricultural practices aimed to increase yield, productivity and efficiency could still make a meaningful contribution towards the coffee economy.
“Reducing the numbers of endangered species through limiting deforestation, improving water efficiency thereby reducing drought, and reducing the impact of diseases on crops is an imperative for the global coffee industry to continue to thrive,” he added.
But is extinction really the immediate main issue facing the sustainability of coffee?
According to coffee consultant and Coffee Business World columnist Raf Mlodzianowski extinction is the “least of our worries.”
“Other than huge mechanised farms we will have no coffee long before that. Farmers are being severely underpaid and as such are moving away from coffee to other crops at an alarming pace,” he said.
“Many I have spoken to say once the new crop is harvesting (2-5 years) they will cut down the coffee trees.”
Farmers are also facing issues with pickers and labourers.
“Most agricultural countries are now becoming economically more prosperous and as such earnings need to match current living standards or these workers will stop turning up. Picking is a seasonal job so it needs to pay enough to keep people fed all year,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the International Coffee Organization (ICO) agreed that the coffee sector is facing many challenges and including preserving the biodiversity of coffee is just one of them.
“However, the most pressing matter is the impact of low coffee prices impacting the livelihoods of smallholder coffee farmers, where production costs are in some instances higher than the income received. This crisis is leading coffee farmers with no funds to ‘treat’ their coffee crop adequately which may be impacted by the effects of climate change, pest and disease; some are even leaving coffee production altogether, switching to the production of illicit crops, or even emigrating.”
The ICO is currently calling for partners to join and support a structured consultation process involving high-level decision-makers of the coffee industry. The aim is to identify and implement proposals that seek to minimise the negative impact of low coffee prices on smallholder farmers.
While the the potential extinction would have an impact on poorer countries, there would also be an impact on the UK economy.
A report for the BCA, produced with the Centre for Economics and Business Research, called The UK coffee market and its impact on the economy, showed that the coffee industry’s total output to the UK economy was £17.7bn in 2017, creating approximately 210,325 UK jobs.
It revealed that the out-of-home segment was a growing market representing about 33% of the volume sales of all coffee products. In 2017, the total estimated turnover generated from coffee products alone in the food service sector stood at £3.2bn, a 9% increase from the £2.9 billion in 2016.
While the headlines were scaremongering, what it did was unveil was the potential impact a coffee crisis could have in the future, not just for coffee drinkers but also the UK economy.
While the future of coffee production faces a crisis for whatever reason, currently it is in surplus. The ICO Coffee Market Report December 2018 revealed that the coffee year 2018/19 was expected to be the second consecutive season of surplus, as global output, estimated at 167.47 million bags would exceed world consumption, estimated at 165.18 million bags.
But with demand for coffee expected to continue to grow, and predictions of a drop in production in the future, a plan of action is needed.