Fighting for Coffee’s Future

Confronting climate change, fewer farmers and other threats

by Michelle Flandreau | April 5, 2017
HOME Farm to Cup Fighting for Coffee’s Future

Standing on a coffee farm in a remote community of Chiapas, Mexico, Kelly Goodejohn was stunned. Hundreds of coffee trees, normally lush with bright red cherries and waxy green leaves, were mostly bare. The shriveling, brown cherries that remained were dying. Yellow splotches covered the lingering leaves that still clung to brittle branches.

The culprit: coffee leaf rust, a fungus that decimates trees, leaving them unable to produce coffee.

“What struck me the most was that look of desperation, that look of sadness that these trees that had been a part of these families for so long were not thriving,” Goodejohn said.

Goodejohn heads up ethical sourcing and sustainability efforts at Starbucks. What she witnessed last spring represents one of many threats facing the coffee industry today. She returned to Seattle with a renewed sense of responsibility and the sobering reminder that the future of coffee is not guaranteed.

Your cup of coffee is at stake

Arabica coffee, which makes up 64 percent of the world’s coffee supply, is “a little finicky,” as Goodejohn puts it.

Here’s why: Most coffee only grows between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, often referred to as the “Coffee Belt.” Within this region, arabica coffee needs specific conditions to thrive. The trees grow best between 3,000 and 6,000 feet, where hot days and cool nights slow down the development of coffee cherries and create a more refined flavor.

This sensitive species also requires a certain temperature, with the ideal annual mean ranging from 18 to 21 degrees Celsius. Although arabica can withstand higher or lower temperatures, quality could suffer.

“Good things are often more difficult to get. In this case, arabica coffee is harder to grow, but it also is a higher quality in your cup,” Goodejohn said.

At Starbucks, we only source and roast arabica coffee. But we run the risk of not having the finest quality if we don’t take action now against some of coffee’s biggest threats.

“Just like the farmers are dependent on coffee for their livelihoods, people seem to depend on coffee to get up and go every day. If you want to be able to have a cup of coffee in the future and to be able to understand that it is sustainably grown and not having a detrimental impact on the environment or on people … I think that that’s why people have to care,” said Bambi Semroc. She’s a Senior Strategic Advisor and the Coffee Lead at Conservation International, an environmental nonprofit that Starbucks has partnered with over the past 18 years.

The risk goes beyond your morning cup of coffee. In the United States alone in 2015, the coffee industry made a $225 billion impact on our economy and accounted for nearly 1.7 million jobs, the National Coffee Association says. Around the world, the livelihoods of around 100 million people depend on coffee and its future.

A changing climate

Continuing a “long-term warming trend,” 2016 was the hottest year on record, according to NASA and NOAA. Rising temperatures and changing weather patterns are making it harder for farmers to grow coffee—high-quality coffee, in particular—in the same places as before.

Coffee farmers have always faced threats like pests and diseases. But as temperatures increase in coffee-producing areas, diseases like coffee leaf rust are now able to survive in new environments and at higher elevations.

“Within our own supply chain, we have seen dramatic effects of coffee leaf rust. In Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, we’ve seen farmers that have lost 50, 60, 70 percent of their trees. And not only does that have a negative impact on them being able to produce coffee, but … it’s less income for their families to survive off of coffee,” Goodejohn said.

Coffee berry borer, a tiny pest that invades and damages the coffee bean, can also now withstand higher elevations, making arabica coffee a prime target.

On top of these increased incidents of pests and diseases, farmers are confronted with less predictable rainfall and more severe weather events, like storms and droughts.

“Farmers tell us that, ‘We used to see the rains at this time, now we’re seeing them at another time. Sometimes, it’s so variable, we don’t even know when we’re going to have the rains, so we don’t know when to plant, when to fertilize.’ All these things are really disrupted by the variability that they see,” Semroc said.

As coffee producers feel the effects of a changing climate, they may need to move to higher elevations to continue growing coffee. But this creates an entirely new challenge.

“When you push into those higher altitudes, usually you’re pushing into the last remaining intact forest areas in these coffee landscapes. So, what we believe is going to happen is we’re going to see more pressure on those remaining forest areas from coffee,” Semroc said.

All of this adds up to the possibility for less suitable land to grow high-quality coffee.

“If we look at today, we might see little signals here and there. But what we’re trying to do is look at the longer-term impact and try to understand what the future could look like if we don’t start to address things today,” Goodejohn said. “While today they might all seem like little nuances or little signals in each country, the bigger picture could be devastating if we look toward 2050 as an example.”

Finding future farmers

With factors like climate change impacting coffee production, there’s a concern the younger generation will be less interested in pursuing jobs in the coffee industry. Instead, many of those would-be coffee farmers are moving from rural areas to cities in hopes of finding new opportunities.

“Families are the same everywhere. They’re trying to create opportunities for their children. And if coffee presents that opportunity, then maybe they’ll step into it and want to stay there. If it doesn’t, then they’re probably going to want their children to do something else,” Semroc said.

This is an especially pressing issue, given that the average coffee farmer is in their 50s.

“If they don’t have their sons or daughters who want to take coffee up, we don’t have that supply of coffee. That also means that the heritage of coffee is disappearing in those communities,” Goodejohn said.

Arming farmers with knowledge

While some of the world’s 25 million coffee farmers have the tools and resources to combat these challenges, not everyone has equal access.

“Where coffee farmers are more remote, where they don’t have technicians or agronomists who can support them, those are the ones who are more vulnerable and less apt to be successful in growing high-quality coffee,” Goodejohn said.

Goodejohn says many of the best practices farmers can employ are relatively simple: making sure the soil is protected, planting shade trees, pruning coffee trees often so they don’t get overgrown and replacing aging or less productive trees with new disease-resistant varieties.

But even if farmers do know about these tactics, smallholder farmers often need more time to address issues. Take, for example, a coffee farmer with only a few hectares of land. Compared to a large farm with more than 50 hectares, those trees mean all the more from an income perspective. Smallholder farmers don’t have the flexibility to renovate over time and spread out the loss of income, especially when you consider that it takes about three years before a new coffee tree can produce cherries.

“There’s a lot more that we’re going to need to do if we’re going to reach especially the small-scale producers who may need more incentive or a longer lead time to be able to really transition their production into these better practices that are going to make them more viable into the future,” Semroc said.

Protecting the future of coffee

These challenges come as coffee consumption is on the rise in the United States. 62 percent of people surveyed drank coffee within the past day, according to the National Coffee Association’s National Coffee Drinking Trends 2017 report.

Semroc and Goodejohn agree collective action within the coffee industry is needed to address the urgency and significance of these threats.

“We have a lot of amazing programs out there that are really changing how coffee is produced in a way that is sustaining the landscape. It’s sustaining the communities. And we need to do more of that,” Semroc said. “How can we capture those and apply them in other places and do that in a really quick way and efficient way so that we’re actually transitioning the sector to more sustainable production in the timeline that we really have to do it?”

At Starbucks, we’re dedicated to helping farmers overcome these challenges in a number of ways. We’re committed to buying 100 percent ethically sourced coffee in partnership with Conservation International. Thanks to your support, we’re donating millions of disease-resistant trees to help farmers fight threats like coffee leaf rust*. Through our Global Farmer Fund program, we’re investing $50 million toward financing for farmers, allowing them to renovate their farm or pursue more sustainable practices.

To improve productivity and sustainability, we share our research and resources through our Farmer Support Centers—located in coffee-producing countries around the world. They’re open to farmers regardless of whether they sell to us.

Through these efforts, our goal is also to show the next generation that growing coffee can be prosperous for their families and communities.

We’re taking steps to reduce our own carbon footprint, like our focus on building to LEED® standards. And we’re collaborating with the industry to make coffee the world’s first sustainable agricultural product, as a founding member of the Sustainable Coffee Challenge.

“I am entirely optimistic that the coffee industry will be able to help farmers adapt. … We’re coming together. We’re working collaboratively. We’re working in a way that is ultimately trying to support coffee farmers—smallholder, medium, large-sized farmers—so that in the future, we will all enjoy high-quality coffee,” Goodejohn said.

*Starbucks will donate $0.70 to Conservation International for every bag of coffee sold from participating Starbucks® stores in the U.S. to foster thriving coffee communities. To learn more, visit conservation.org/onetree.

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