There is something deceivingly banal about coffee.
It’s something about the big numbers that makes the mind sort of deaden like when they tell you that Vietnam is the second-largest coffee producer after Brazil, an export market worth US$20 billion globally.
So, one may snap back to attention learning the land supply suitable for coffee growth could shrink by nearly three-fourths, according to environmental scientists studying the crop. The reason? Climate change.
“I’d say the biggest challenge now is climate change,” Joshua Guikema, co-founder of K’Ho Coffee, said. His Dalat coffee farm grows Arabica beans, a plant species that represents a mere five percent of Vietnam’s robusta bean heavy output.
Some of the best coffees are also the ones most sensitive to changes in growth conditions, and they would be the first to be threatened, Guikema said.
“Coffee is susceptible to many diseases—especially the old varieties, which are really vulnerable,” he said.
In September, the US-based National Academy of Sciences published a report forecasting coffee production with advanced computer modelling while taking into account the combined effects of climate change and bee loss, the first study of its kind.
“Climate change impact assessments suggest a significant reduction, up to 50 percent in the global area suitable for coffee farming by mid-century,” the study’s authors write. Other models indicate “coffee-suitable” areas may be reduced by up to 88 percent by 2050 across the most severe warming scenarios.
“We expect by 2050 the demand for coffee to double. And by 2050 the land suitable for growing coffee will decrease,” Guikema said. “So we expect the prices to go up.”
That’s about double the farmland that a similar 2016 study said would be lost by a warming climate. Coffee supports livelihoods of 125 million people around the world, including some of the most marginalised and poor people in developing countries.
Hitting the Weakest
That may make your future cup of coffee more expensive, and is a huge threat to coffee farmers, many of whom are small actors like Guikema and K’Ho Coffee. Most of the world’s coffee comes from South America, and 80 percent of those farmers are working on less than four hectares and modest incomes. K’Ho Coffee’s operation spans 40 hectares.
About 95 percent of Vietnamese coffee is made on private farms—85 percent are less than one hectare and only one percent are larger than five hectares.
The silver lining is that the impending crisis is cause for innovation.
Inventing a New Bean
The US-based World Coffee Research is developing new varieties of coffee plants. It is testing new varieties and new techniques like growing under forest shade.
A US$6 million project is underway that takes experimental beans raised in Nicaragua for a four-year experiment in Vietnam and Cameroon.
In July 2017, coffee shipments globally amounted to 9.4 million bags at 600kg each, 11 percent-plus more than last year, but exports present a different picture.
July 2017 was Brazil’s lowest recorded coffee export, 1.75 million bags. Vietnam’s shipments during that month reached 1.55 million bags, nearly 30 percent lower than the previous year. Both countries’ shipments appear to be trending downward.
Vietnam’s Coffee Master Plan
Vietnam’s coffee economy was created and solidified through a national coffee growing program in the ’90s and a simultaneous normalisation of economic relations with the United States. Guikema said Vietnamese coffee production probably peaked around the late ’90s.
In 2012, Vietnam established a coffee master plan, which identified 614,500 hectares of farmland being used for coffee. That land was producing beans at an average of 2.4 tons per hectare.
The plan also described an intent to push the higher-quality Arabica beans like the ones Guikema is growing on K’Ho Coffee’s farms. The plan involved Vietnam growing the premium bean’s production from 5 percent of production to 8 percent in 2020.
It’s a serious move to establish Vietnam as an exporter of high quality coffee. Only 6 percent of coffee is consumed domestically. Much of it goes to the United States, Brazil and Germany, where coffee consumption is 4.5kg, 5.5kg and 6.5kg per person, respectively. Vietnam consumes 1.5kg of coffee per person on average.
In 2012, the nation’s coffee exports rose to a record US$3.7 billion.
That’s under threat as warming temperatures give rise to a fungus called coffee rust and makes things more habitable for a pest called the coffee berry borer, an insect blamed for millions of dollars worth of lost coffee crops.
Guikema is building a new nursery to grow new, experimental coffee plants.
Coffee’s strength and saving grace may be a curious and conscientious customer base. Guikema said he’s confident that if a coffee can be made that’s better for the environment and better on the palette, people will take to it.
Banner image source: anthaigroup.vn