The coffee industry is facing a crisis

16 October, 2018 by
Madeline Woolway

Despite a booming coffee industry here in Australia, the dual threats of climate change and a lack of plant diversity could spell disaster for coffee producers.

Experts are predicting a shortfall of 180 million bags by 2050 — unless significant work is undertaken to develop climate-resilient and disease resistant coffee varieties.

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“Demand for coffee is expected to double by the year 2050,” says Greg Meenahan, partnership development director at World Coffee Research (WCR). “If nothing is done, more than half the world’s suitable coffee land will be pushed into unsuitability due to climate change.”

It’s not just the land that coffee is farmed on that’s at risk; the crop itself is in jeopardy. Unlike many agricultural commodities, coffee is under-researched and under-innovated. Surprisingly, there are just 52 varieties of coffee; compare that to another darling of Australian café culture, the avocado, which has 129 varieties. Wine, which has faced similar threats in the past, now has more than 1000 varieties.

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“Many people don’t realise that all of the fruits and vegetables they eat have massive teams of researchers and geneticists working to improve the crop, and not only to improve it to fight diseases but to create new varieties that meet consumer demand,” explains Meenahan.

“Adding to its vulnerability is the colonial origins of coffee and how it has travelled around the world in such a way that 80 to 90 per cent of the coffee we drink is very closely related to each other, so there’s very little genetic diversity, which means that one disease affects the entire crop.”

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Such was the case in 2012 when La Roya, or leaf rust, devastated 80 per cent of El Salvador’s crops. Starmaya — a high yielding, rust resistant and climate smart variety that also boasts very good cup quality  — might be the key to ensuring coffee’s future according to WCR.

As fifth-generation El Salvadoran producer Aida Batlle, who vividly remembers the effects of La Roya, puts it, “To get the new varieties is great but the other challenge is for the farmers to have the money to invest not only in these plants but in maintaining them over the next four or five years without return on investment.”

Along with its other attributes, Starmaya offers relief from this cycle. “I went to a farm and they showed me this variety [Starmaya],” says Batlle. “I was just amazed by it because it was this beautiful, young 1.5-year-old plant that already had cherries. Normally, the varieties we’re dealing with would take up to three or four years.”

Stories such as this from producers like Batlle are what compelled original founding member of WCR and director of coffee at Single O, Wendy De Jong, to import a full container of future-friendly coffees to Australia. The roaster launched a single-origin Starmaya from Guadalupe Zajú, Mexico on 15 October, with more to come.

Beyond offering consumers climate-resilient varieties, roasters can do their bit by ‘self-taxing’ in order to contribute to further research and development.

“We recognise that the future of coffee is in all of our hands and are calling on Australian roasters and importers to do their part to fund critical research and development needed for coffee and farmers alike by signing up to the WCR Checkoff program,” says De Jong.

“The way this functions is sort of as self-tax. What I’ve learned from Greg [Meenahan] is that across a lot agricultural commodities people involved in the industry self-tax for research and development. So we find an amount that’s comfortable for us as a roaster and that goes to WCR.”

Some coffee producing nations are already reaping the rewards. Under Colombia’s version of the WCR Checkoff program, the coffee industry invests 6 cents per pound of coffee sold into research and development. “You can see the results for Colombia’s farmers,” says Meenahan. “They’re among the top producers in the world and they bounce back from La Roya faster than almost anyone else.”