11 Apr Climate change, coffee and the ethical complexities of your morning cuppa
This week, we’re joined by #EthicalHour sponsor Coromandel Coast to discuss the connection between climate change, coffee and the ethics of the industry, which isn’t as straightforward as you might think…
This guest post is part of the #EthicalHour sponsorship programme – written by Veena, Founder of Coromandel Coast, where she shares her expert views and insights from her recent trip to India…
Here’s a conversation with a fifth-generation coffee farmer…
Veena: Where do you think coffee is headed? What is the future of coffee?
Farmer: Think it’s best if I cut down the crops and do something else!
Veena: (shocked by the response) Why?
Farmer: Because for the last 5 years I’ve been selling coffee at a loss. The only thing that keeps me afloat is the pepper that grows alongside our coffee.
And the gentleman quoted above is not even a small-holder farmer. One can only imagine the plight of small-holder farmers in the coffee growing regions across the globe.
I have had many such conversations with small-holder farmers during my recent farm trip to India, and the two problems that often come up are climate change and the low cost of coffee…
The price of coffee
The global commodity futures price for coffee, also known as C, is at 93.65 cents a pound (which works out to approx. £1.60 /kg as on Apr 9, 2019).
As with most commodities prices depend on demand and supply.
The two top producers Brazil and Vietnam have had bumper harvests. Thanks to intensive sun-grown farming practices, which often include heavy use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and razing tropical forests to convert them into croplands.
It’s agri-business at its worst. The oversupply by these two countries have a devastating effect on other coffee growing regions that are often inhabited by some of the world’s poorest.
The current C price is so low that it’s forcing farmers to sell their coffee at a loss.
In regions where coffee is grown sustainably such as in Ethiopia and Guatemala, the cost of growing coffee can be a lot higher.
For example, in India, where almost all the coffee is shade-grown, under the lush canopy of forest trees, it is around £2.65 /kg*. This is the barest minimum.
Unfortunately, no certification or accreditation addresses this problem.
(* This is because coffee matures very slowly under the shade, and so yields are lower compared to sun-grown coffee farms.)
In fact, one of our partner farms follows strict bio-diversity standards such as maintaining a higher than average canopy cover, species richness and tree density. Their costs quite easily cross the £3 mark.
Of course, the costs do not factor the consequences of climate change.
Climate change and coffee
Coffee is a delicate crop. It thrives in the humid tropics at high elevations. Just a couple of degrees here and there has a huge impact on yields.
A lesser known fact is that coffee plantations need rainfall at very specific times.
Too much rainfall at the wrong time could destroy the coffee cherries and adversely affect the flowering season. Too little or drought-like conditions could mean proliferation of fungal pathogens.
One such notorious epidemic caused by the fungus Hemileia vastatrix is called the leaf rust.
At our recent farm trip, the signs of coffee rust were everywhere.The disease causes the leaves to shed and could lead to heavy crop losses when left unattended. In 2012, it nearly wiped out coffee from Guatemala.
In another part of the world, studies have found that 60% of wild Arabica* coffee species are under threat of extinction.
What this means is a lack of genetic diversity. These wild coffee species found mostly in Ethiopia, coffee’s birthplace, are needed to breed new disease resistant and climate-smart species to secure coffee’s future.
(* there are two main commercial species of coffee, Arabica and Robusta)
The compounding effect
The reality is, climate change has wreaked havoc on many farming communities by affecting crop yields.
In the foreseeable future, reduced output will push the costs even higher.
This would mean a greater loss for farmers.
When farmers operate a loss, they cannot invest in better farm management practices such as pruning, which is critical to controlling the spread of the leaf rust.
Leaf rust compounded by the lower C price, is a lethal combination that has put coffee in crisis.
But there’s one thing we all can do, and that is to brew a ‘greener’ cup of this endangered beverage.
About Coromandel Coast
Coromandel Coast is a social-enterprise sourcing and roasting specialty grade, shade-grown coffee from India.
The company turns one year old this week, and we are immensely proud of the impact we have created and the lives we have touched.
For the journey ahead, we have also strengthened our sourcing principles.
Sustainability is such a nebulous concept, meaning different things to different people.
At Coromandel Coast we have broken down sustainability into three critical components:
Economic sustainability – Is the coffee profitable to the farmer?
We are forging direct-trade partnerships where we pay three to four times the C price. This higher price ensures farmer profitability and investment into better farm management practices.
Social sustainability – Is there sufficient income to transform lives in these farming communities?
More than 90% of hired labour in our partner farms are women. They are often the chief wage earners able to send their children to top schools and colleges in the city. We also contribute 10% of our revenues towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in India.
Environmental sustainability – Can people, flora and fauna thrive in these coffee growing regions?
Agroforestry supporting crop production such as shade-grown coffee preserves our planet’s eco-systems.
Our partner farms are in the Western Ghats, one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots – home to at least 325 threatened species. Our direct-trade farms maintain and monitor critical bio-diversity standards.
Our shade-grown coffee also comes in 100% plastic-free packaging.
To learn more and shop our range, visit www.coromandelcoast.co.uk
Photo credit : Maaria Lohiya