The world consumes about 200 billion cups of coffee everyday. Ironically, for a beverage that makes up a staple of most adults’ daily routine, the coffee industry is anything but stable. The coffee industry’s volatility can be attributed to global issues like climate change and the recent COVID-19 pandemic, compounded by our reliance on only 2 palatable African coffee species: Arabica and Robusta.
Impact of climate change
Climate change is a known long-term risk to crops like coffee, chocolate and wine grapes that require specific conditions to thrive. Unpredictable weather patterns as a result of climate change has made the coffee industry very tense. Brazil, the world’s largest supplier of coffee beans, has been struggling with frequent droughts and severe frosts, like in July 2021 when snow fell in the hills of Cerrado Mineiro and frost spread across coffee trees in the region. Because coffee plants take several years to mature, any significant loss can have a devastating impact on producers, even pushing them to bankruptcy. The situation is made dire when close to half of the suitable areas for growing coffee are projected to be wiped out by 2050 due to such damaging weather phenomena.
Figure 1: Frost-covered mature coffee plants in Brazil
Source: Daily Coffee News
The unfolding economic crisis extends to the social sphere. Hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers and coffee-processing jobs in the tropics would be affected as constantly operating at financial losses can lead to the out-migration of smallholder farmers into urban settings. Less-educated farmers are at greater risk of falling into urban poverty under market drivers and new environmental conditions. A lower income has several knock-on effects on already vulnerable populations, threatening farmers’ overall well-being through: hindered access to healthcare, inability to access basic household goods and negative impacts on nutrition due to reduced household purchasing power. Thus, the environmental, social and economic impacts are inseparable.
Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic
Firstly, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected labour supply, either directly due to illness or indirectly as the movement of coffee-farm labourers and migrant workers has been limited due to social distancing measures, lockdowns and travel restrictions. Secondly, internal logistics networks and the export infrastructure have also been disrupted, resulting in delays of shipments as well as increased trade and transaction costs. Countries in which the peak of the pandemic coincides with coffee harvesting seasons were most severely affected. Furthermore, coffee producers who tend to hire more migrant workers as opposed to relying on the local community are worse hit, as they will be more prone to labour shortages caused by travel restrictions.
Beyond these short-term effects, the COVID-19 pandemic could have some adverse long-term effects on the coffee industry as well. As farmers struggle with diminishing income and high periods of uncertainty, they are unable to afford investments in sustainable and climate-resilient production and instead turn to desperate measures, such as borrowing money from loan sharks and moving to cities for employment and living in poverty. In some cases, they even resort to roping in their children for labour. According to a study done by the Internation Coffee Organisation (ICO), evidence suggests that child labour could be on the rise due to increasing poverty and more school closures due to the pandemic.
Figure 2: Published in an expose revealing coffee giants sourcing their beans from suppliers who are using child labour
Possible solution: Breeding hardier species of coffee
To create a more resilient coffee production system, there is a need to find other hardier coffee species to breed into the mix. A recent discovery is the Stenophylla plant. In a landmark report by lead author and renowned coffee scientist Aaron Davis, it was revealed that this plant could be the long sought-after alternative to the arabica coffee species in the face of long-term climate change. It is robust, drought and pest-resistant. The susceptibility of the coffee chain to environmental jolts and its dependence on just 2 main species of coffee has spurred more investment into breeding projects. While the new species shows great potential, many experts agree that the pathway to commercially viable stenophylla is very long and immensely costly. Furthermore, technological fixes have their limitations. A new species much be resilient now, but a new disease or another unforeseen event could affect it in the same way. Researching and developing new technology also requires lots of time and energy, which could possibly result in higher carbon emissions produced.
Figure 3: The Stenophylla plant
Source: Daily Coffee News
Possible solution: Improving coffee growing practices
Changing the model of production to agroforestry can create a more ecologically diverse system that provides an abundance of crops and environmental benefits for farmers. Agroforestry is a land-use system that integrates trees and shrubs on farmlands and rural landscapes to enhance productivity, profitability, diversity and ecosystem sustainability. Some smallholder growers in India, for example, utilize over 100 different types of trees on their coffee farms, forming canopy cover that provides shade for coffee plants and habitat for birds, along with food and medicinal plants for the farmers themselves. This creates resilience in the ecosystem as if one species is affected by disease, other species present on the plot of agriculture will not be affected. The synergistic effects of plants on one another is another benefit. For example, one plant can have pest-repelling properties that can help all neighbouring plants. An added bonus of agroforestry is that it cools the surrounding air, which mitigates many of the effects of climate change as well.
Figure 6: Coffee-based agroforestry system with a dense shade of eucalyptus and erythrine at free growth in Costa Rica
Source: Plant species diversity for sustainable management of crop pests and diseases in agroecosystems (A review)
Responsibility of various stakeholders
There is a pressing need to create a more rational system where the farmers have a stronger say into how much coffee is produced. Coffee companies need to contribute by making their supply chains more balanced. An example of important action roasters and buyers need to take is changing their procurement practices to ensure that producers receive a decent payment for their crop within a timely manner. Only then, producers will be able to plan ahead, invest sustainably and provide a decent livelihood for their family.
In producing countries, governments should set a regulatory framework for sustainable coffee production. For example, by banning child labor, hazardous pesticides, and setting minimum wages and minimum prices.
While multi-stakeholder initiatives such as breeding projects can facilitative effective collaborative and aligned approaches by different supply chain actors, the impact is still limited. The initiatives—and in particular, the companies in the initiatives—will need to become more transparent on what their efforts entail, make bolder commitments, and ensure accountability for those commitments.