Foodie Underground: The Real Impact of Your Cup of Espresso

ColumnIs your cup of coffee threatened?

Dukunde Kawa or Kilenso?

I was at Coava Coffee Roasters for an afternoon meeting and having to choose what beans I wanted my iced Americano to be made from. Here, roasting is taken seriously, and on any give day you have your pick between the two blends of the day, always sourced from specific cooperatives on the other side of the world. I went with the Rwandan one, liking the taste, but also, for a variety of reasons – including once having a roommate from Rwanda – because the cooperative was on my radar.

Coava is of course different from the majority of coffee shops. Most times we stand in line, decide whether or not we should go for the soy latte today because we’ve been feeling a little dairy intolerant lately, opt for the extra shot and go on our way. But our coffee choices aren’t insignificant. Far from it, in fact.

Coffee is the world’s second most valuable traded commodity, beat out only by oil. Our cars get fuel and so do we. Our consumption also fuels an entire global industry of farmers and producers. According to Global Exchange, there are approximately 25 million farmers and coffee workers in over 50 countries involved in producing coffee around the world.

For something that touches so many lives, both on the production and the consumption side, it often gets very little thought beyond whether or not we remembered to bring our travel mug. We know that we should skip the disposable cup and pesky little plastic lid, but for most of us, that’s where the environmental costs and coffee connection stops. Coffee however, is an industry highly subject to the negative effects of climate change, and if you don’t think that your everyday actions aren’t affecting what you’re drinking, think again.

As with other agricultural crops, coffee isn’t a newcomer to the effects of weather patterns. “The coffee industry has been very aware of the impact of weather on coffee for a very long time… if there’s an extreme weather event, the big commercial traders know how that is going to ripple out over the next 6 to 12 months,” says Ben Corey-Moran of Thanksgiving Coffee, an artisan coffee roaster based in Northern California. But with the heightened dramatic weather patterns influenced by climate change, those effects are changing, and in a big way. For decades adds Corey-Moran, “the wet season was consistently wet and the dry season consistently dry.” With these normal cycles there was a consistent rhythm, but with dramatic changes to climate “that rhythm has shifted so much that it’s totally chaotic.”

Simply put, as temperatures warm, coffee fruit ripens more quickly, producing a less complex flavor. As Corey-Moran compares it to Pinot Noirs of colder northern climates. “we’re losing the “terroir,” the dynamic balance in the ecosystem that produces these flavors that we love.”

This isn’t just a threat felt by a select few. “Organizations like GCQRI are researching this very threat to the industry and have put it at the top of their list as a critical problem to not only specialty coffee, but the entire industry of coffee. This threat could lead to areas, zones and regions becoming extinct from being able to grow coffee that suits our needs apropos quality, thus meaning a superior premium to growers who go the extra mile,” says Darrin Daniel of Stumptown Coffee, the Portland-based roasting company known for its close work with its coffee cooperatives and farmers.

But it’s not just a problem for specialty coffee. “Imagine in 10 years that sought after regions of cultivation of arabica might not be sustainable and also be suspect to outbreaks such as coffee leaf rust and increased issues with coffee borer (brocca). In ten years, we may have thousands of coffee producers who might have to cultivate an entirely new agricultural product or leave farming all together,” says Daniel.

That means not only you without a craft cup of joe, or a craft cup that could taste very differently than what you’re used to, but millions of people around the world without jobs.

“First and foremost this is livelihood for these farmers,” says Corey-Moran. “The farmers who we are working with are losing their crops because of the weather.” That’s why at Thanksgiving Coffee, Corey-Moran and his team started to think about what they could do, asking the farmers themselves what they would do to mitigate the effects. “More technology, more chemicals and better new breeds will help us [with] this mess that we’re in, [but] that’s not the direction we want to go. We want to go in the direction of investing in the farm’s ability to protect itself.”

“The cooperative developed a set of interventions that were designed to protect their farms against those changes,” says Corey-Moran. Those interventions came in the form of tree planting, and partnering with NGO Progresso, the company launched a comprehensive reforestation program at Dunde Kawa in Rwanda, planting trees to not only provide shade but also improve the topsoil, buffering the impact of rain and keeping the ground moist during dry periods. Inspired by the success of the project, Thanksgiving Coffee went on to launch the Resilience Fund, a non profit organization that will allow the company to invest in the same type of adaptive programs at other cooperatives. “The goal is that the Resilience Fund will be a vehicle that other coffee roasting companies can use to support their partners at origin,” says Corey-Moran

More programs like this will help cooperatives deal with the negative effects of climate change on their livelihoods, but ultimately, there is a need for larger change.

“The only action is to spur education around this issue and press governments to understand the importance of carbon emissions. This is a global issue that will not only impact coffee producers, but also large swaths of communities in areas of the world where rising temperatures will potentially devastate coastal communities,” says Daniel.

As with many environmental issues, it also comes down to taking personal responsibility for your every day choices. Coffee companies that are making smart decisions and implementing programs that ensure their farmers are protected and making wages that allow them to care for their families and take part in their local communities need continued support. Without them, we’ll be looking at a very different industry.

“Know where your coffee comes from. Ask questions. Climate change is something that will impact growers and I believe an understanding of how overall yields and livelihood will impact. The biggest impact consumers can have is to seek ways in which they can influence issues that are connected with long term global change and carbon emission abatement,” says Daniel.

Next time you order your Americano, know what you’re drinking and know what drinking it means.

“Climate change is not going to affect someone else, it’s already affecting the food on your table,” says Corey-Moran.

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s weekly column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground, discovering what’s new and different in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to the culinary avant garde.

Image: kennymatic, Thanksgiving Coffee

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.