Welcome all, this time I am going to give you a Bear’s eye view of a big subject that doesn’t get talked about as much as it could. The future of coffee as an agricultural crop.
Yes really, I am going to take a deeper look at the state of supply and sustainability of one of the worlds favourite drinks.
This topic can seem an odd one, as at first glance coffee is everywhere and so you’d be forgiven for assuming this meant it was pretty much a fixture in our world. But as is often the case, you can’t judge a book by it’s cover.
The reality is that coffee growing is in the middle of a watershed period at the moment, there are some real questions over the long term sustainability of coffee growing. Let’s start with learning a little more about the types of coffee we grow and consume.
Back To Grass Roots
It may interest you to know that something in the region of 124 scientifically identified individual wild species of coffee are known to grow in Africa (and that number would likely grow with more research), but that the coffee you regularly drink is most likely from only 2 genus of Coffea Arabica.
These coffee plant varietals (subtypes), namely Typica and Bourbon, are the two which made it out of Africa in the past and became the foundation of most commercial plantations outside of coffee’s homeland. But hang on Bear, there are loads of names for coffees from all over the world. What gives?
Ok so, despite the often overwhelming set of names that are used to describe them, these many types of coffee; Caturra, Red Bourbon, Yellow Bourbon, and the rest are largely mild mutations (this concept will be important later on) of the two core coffees. One agronomist I know described the gene pool of the coffee family pretty well in saying “Most of these coffees are, at best, kissing cousins of Typica and Bourbon”.
Sustainable Crops & Plant Genetics
Now some of you reading this who remember some basic plant biology lessons from school may already be raising an eyebrow at this, and wondering if this is a rather bad omen, and you are not wrong. Let me explain, when it comes to long term sustainability what we want to see in any commercial crop is a healthy level of genetic diversity.
Plants naturally mutate when grown in different terroir, the coffee plant definitely does, pretty much all of the flavour diversity we get in our beloved caffeine fix comes from the adaptable nature of the two coffee plants discussed above. But a part of that adaptability is in the range of genetics available to the plant. This is why most plants grow best in their natural environment, and don’t always thrive elsewhere.
So what happens when all that isn’t the case? Well when the gene pool narrows a crop becomes far more susceptible to environmental factors (you may have noticed we have a few issues there at the moment), disease and other serious issues. Because we have such a limited crop diversity around the coffee growing world, many much smarter minds than mine will tell you the crop is far from safe and stable.
Also coffee suffers from one rather peculiar problem in long term sustainability. Bluntly put (as is my trademark at times) coffee growing suffers from a serious lack of foresight.
When you view any other commercially farmed crop on a large scale you will find that a huge amount of time and money is spent on Agronomics (the science of farming), the coffee world however (with the exception of some wealthier origin countries) spends a woefully small amount on this sort of research.
Many coffee plantations are still managed based on handed down wisdom and trial and error. If you asked a wine grower to step into growing a crop with this sort of methodology they would likely consider you mad and probably laugh you out of the meeting! Research into genetics, disease and growing practices is crucial in keeping a crop healthy and ensuring profitable farming remains possible.
A (Hypothetical) Farmer’s Tale
Ok so, I’ll try to avoid this becoming over technical. Let’s meet the Caffinos, my very own and entirely fictitious coffee farmers. The Caffino family have been growing coffee in Central America for generations, they began as a small holding with a unique crop and remained so for a good long time. However at the start of the coffee boom in the mid 20th century they started to really struggle.
Global popularity and major corporate purchasing, meant that prices dipped and small holdings became unsustainable. So in the 70’s the Caffino family joined a local cooperative of coffee farms. In sharing the use and cost of processing and drying facilities this group of around 10 farms were able to collectively compete in the changing landscape of the coffee industry.
But as time has progressed more issues have arisen, like many Central American growers the cooperatives crops are based on slight mutations of Coffea Arabica, specifically in this case Typica (remember I said this would matter). They farm and grow using best practice which has passed down from parent to child for generations, and the shared wisdom of the farmers is their best weapon against a changing climate and diseases like coffee rust (a particularly nasty problem in coffee growing).
The problem is that all the experience in the world cannot help you to protect and sustain a crop that lacks the genetic diversity to adapt properly. What you need is access to agronomic research and support, and in the region of Central America where the cooperative grows, this is simply not available at a reasonable cost.
As a result of these factors business has slowed and concerns have been raised. For the first time no members of the next adult generation of the Caffino family have expressed any interest in coffee farming, each having gone on to find their own way in the world. So Angelo and Maria Caffino in their 70’s are still holding the reins and struggling to fend off purchase offers from major corporate linked growers. The very real truth is that the Caffino coffee legacy may die.
Surely That’s One Small Farm Bear?
It is, and it’s even an invented one, but I assure you that the picture I am painting is a very real one, repeated throughout the coffee growing regions of the world.
The reality of coffee growing at present is a stark one. Climate change and a lack of access to modern tech and skills are creating pressure on the smaller growers who are the heart and soul of coffee. Still perhaps the most fundamental issue here is the lack of proper crop diversity.
Wait a minute you said there were loads of coffee plants!
Fair point, I did indeed. But they are not easily available.
So back to Africa. Here we have well over 100 varieties of wild coffee which all may be able to add to the gene pool of our crop, so why aren’t we farming them? Well. Money.
Ok so I will elaborate, many of these wild varietals don’t produce ideal flavour profiles, of course they very well could, but to find out you need farmers to invest into the growing conditions and needs of a test case plant, back to that agronomics thing.
Africa is not a wealthy nation and many coffee farmers in the heart of our industry are working at best hand to mouth, the idea of expending money on plant genetics to plan your farm process, based on nebulous maybes, is a somewhat alien concept. So perhaps some wild varietal coffees might be tested, grown with plenty of care, and passion but little support. Still if the flavours don’t deliver then a farmer will quickly have to move back to a more established crop to make a living.
But Couldn’t Countries With Agronomic Access Do It?
Well yeah. But. Not so much. OK, we are back to blunt Bear here, for a number of extremely good reasons Africa’s coffee farming communities are not sold on the idea of exporting the wild varieties of their native plant to some places. Let’s be honest, we in the “developed world” don’t have a great track record of sharing the wealth, even if the crop wasn’t ours in the first place.
So the wild varietals are languishing in a sort of coffee purgatory. Farmers don’t have access to the facility to properly develop them into a consumable crop, major industry players won’t risk the cash on seeing if there is anything to gain, consumers have little patience for change, and even less for increased prices. So we keep rolling on, producing the unsafe, safe bet, coffee that we always have.
Hang On. Is Coffee As We Know It Dying?
I am no expert on agronomics, but I do know some. There is a decent weight of evidence that with coffee continuing to be one of the very few industries that grows every year (yes really, the consumption keeps rising), and the added factors I have mentioned here, coffee as we consume it now is about 20-30 years from collapsing under its own weight.
The Bit Where Bear Gets Positive
… Sorry …
Seriously, nope, I am not going to turn this on it’s head. It’s way too important.
The cold reality needs to be seen.
Ok Maybe A Bit
That doesn’t mean you can’t help to change things though. Wherever you sit in coffee, whether a consumer, a roaster, a coffee house or even a grower reading this. You can make a difference by just spreading knowledge and asking questions of the places you get your coffee.
First and foremost, please, please, buy from places that support good trade practice when you can. The more money that gets to the farm gate from a roaster, the better chance the farm has of keeping a healthy crop. So find your local roasters and ask them about how they approach pricing and purchasing. If they aren’t comfortable fielding your questions, you probably know all you need to.
Another option is to support World Coffee Research. You can find them here or linked below. This organization is working to provide open access information to anyone who needs it, this includes vital agronomic results, farming practices and so much more.
Finally as I said above, spread the word. Talk to other coffee lovers about this article, share it with them, let’s ensure that we start to talk about an important subject.
For now, as always, enjoy good coffee and stay safe.
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Thanks, – Bear