Coffee Production Under Pressure

Coffee is more than just a drink. It's a global commodity and one of the world's most traded products-second in value only to oil.  As an industry, it employs millions of people around the world through its growing, processing and trading.  Most of the production occurs in developing countries with 75% of the coffee being grown on farms of 10 or fewer acres.  On the consumer side, most of coffees consumption is in industrialized countries where big business controls the fate of producers. Coffee accounts for nearly half of the total net exports from tropical countries and is in many ways representative of the economic and agricultural issues that developing countries face today. One of the most concerning agricultural issues facing coffee production is climate change.  Here are a few facts you may not know about that cup of morning joe we enjoy each day and why you should care.

Coffee is more fragile than other plants
Unlike a crop staple like rice, of which there are more than 500,000 known varieties, barely 125 different varieties of the coffee plant have been found; of those, we only drink two. This has led to what can be described as a “genetic bottleneck,” in that the plant’s gene pool is too shallow to effectively adapt to the world changing around it. Here’s what Lucile Toniutti, a molecular coffee breeder with the nonprofit organization World Coffee Research (WCR) has to say.

 “Without a big gene pool, every change in an ecosystem has the chance to cripple the plant. Basically, it’s extremely fragile.”  Did you catch her title? More on molecular coffee breeding in the next blog.

But production was still up. In fact, last year, more coffee was harvested than ever before in history. Traditionally tea-drinking nations, like China and Japan, now also have booming coffee cultures. Some projections indicate global coffee demand could still double by 2050. But by the same year, thanks to rising global temperatures, it is forecasted that roughly half of the Earth’s land suitable coffee-growing will no longer be viable for coffee farming. In other words, to keep pace with demand, producers will need to grow twice the coffee with half the space.

The natural conclusion is that as demand grows and production wanes due to environmental stress, prices will go up – probably way up.

But all is not lost.  Next time we’ll discuss how scientists are working to produce coffee varietals that can withstand the stresses of climate change.  In the meantime, buying ethically-sourced coffee will protect the coffee farmer’s economic well-being and the support measures taken to respect the environment.

Next time: Science Tackles Coffee's Future

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