No favours for coffee farmers in Lima climate flop

My local railway station now boasts more staff selling coffee than tickets. Indeed, the best cappuccino in Winchester is to be found at a kiosk installed on the windswept wasteland of Platform 1, despite countless genteel establishments within the City.

During that pause at the station while the machine works its miracle on the beans, I’m always amused to sense the proximity of some of the world’s most topical problems – private sector management of public transport (doing a terrible job), the Eastern European migrant workers staffing the kiosk (doing a great job) and the ill-fated coffee beans, doomed by climate change to fail to meet exponential global demand for more cappuccinos.

Currently in crisis brought about by drought, rust (fungus) and berry borer (beetle), Latin American coffee growers might have hoped that the Peruvian venue for this year’s round of UN talks would crank up the action plan on climate change. Alas, the process moves inexorably towards an international agreement to do nothing very much in no particular hurry.

Coffee is significant because the plant is unusually sensitive to temperature change and erratic weather. Furthermore, the best beans grow in inland regions of East Africa (Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia) where warming may exceed the global average. The most recent IPCC report highlights the impact of climate change on coffee, warning that “the suitability for coffee crops in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and El Salvador will be reduced by more than 40%.” I doubt that coffee growers subscribe to the collective wisdom that two degrees of warming is “safe”.

It’s therefore very possible that people even of my (middle-aged) generation will live to see the endgame of this particular impact of climate change. Will we shrug our shoulders and switch to tea? Will we be willing to pay more for lower quality, leaving pure Arabica coffee as a luxury for the rich? Will we allow the uncertain science of genetic modification to gain access through the soft underbelly of desperation for caffeine?

Who will be the winners and losers of this sorry case study of the Anthropocene living up to its name? In Ethiopia, where coffee has deep cultural significance, 95% of the national harvest is grown on small farms of less than five hectares. These farmers lack the financial or spatial capacity to adapt – already there’s news of a recent Saudi investment in 22,000 hectares of coffee plantation in Ethiopia.

It’s also difficult to imagine how wider African interests can remain in control of the coffee economy. Just two months ago, scientists announced the decoding of the Robusta genome, a stepping stone to the genetic secrets of Arabica beans. It may not be long before patents are sought for adapted strands of DNA, the applicants likely to be limited to a very small number of agribusiness corporations which are not based in Africa.

This picture of a scramble for coffee’s land and DNA, probably occurring under the radar of public awareness, may be speculative but it’s based on the solid precedent of maize, rice and other staple food production. These emerging scenarios go to the heart of the concept of climate justice which argues that countries which have contributed least to carbon pollution will be the biggest losers from the consequences.

Restitution of climate injustice was clearly framed in the original 1992 Convention on Climate Change, both in practical measures (steep emissions cuts by the richer countries together with financial support for adaptation) and in principle (“common but differentiated responsibilities”). The annual COP meetings, charged with implementing the Convention’s goal of stabilising the climate, have failed, and will continue to fail, because these richer countries have lost the political will to negotiate the delivery of their obligations. Instead they devote their energies to emasculating the Convention.

The story of coffee may underpin one of the early chapters in the history of dysfunctional global governance in the 21st century.


Drought in Brazil may hit your coffee mug, from CNN

From Mexico to Brazil, climate change threatens coffee growers in Latin America, from Unside Down World

How climate change will brew a bad-tasting, expensive cup of coffee, from The Guardian

Science Cracks Coffee’s Genetic Code. Up Next: Frankencoffee, from Bloomberg Businessweek

Ethiopia: Coffee sector performs below potential – Briefing Note from Ecobank

Climate Justice Briefing