Certainty of drinking coffee, uncertainty of having enough of it

With the growing demand for coffee and looming climate change, the coffee market faces a global crisis.

By Hana Grohová and Dominik Patzner | Photo by Hana Grohová

Every Dane drinks more than 950 espresso shots on average a year. With 8,6 kilograms of coffee consumption per capita, Denmark is the fourth nation in the world in drinking coffee accompanied by other Scandinavian nations. But the popular “go through the day beverage” drinking habit brought the coffee market into a crisis.

While the demand for coffee stays high, the process of sipping from a cup of the brown liquid becomes complicated. The main issue is the price of coffee on the market – import to non-producing countries rises, the consumption rises too, but the market prices stay roughly the same. Not to mention that the farmers get paid much less than the official market prices state.

Paying less, expecting more

For instance, the average price for Robusta beans on the global market was 1,88 USD in 2018, according to the International Coffee Organisation. Robusta farmers in India got paid 7,5 percent less, in Brazil even 21,5 percent less in comparison with the market price.

“It’s always been a crisis because the prices have never been really good except for a few peak years,” commented Peter Dupont, the CEO of Coffee Collective Roasters based in Copenhagen.

Data: International Coffee Organisation | Created on easy.ly

The problem doesn’t stop here. In most cases, traders play a significant role in the ultimate figure on the customer’s receipt. Some traders arrange purchases to roasters at an affordable price, which might sound well. But the amount of money given to the farmer isn’t likely to meet the global average.

Small roasters try to get the beans as directly as possible. “We know a lot about the product and its quality. We have full transparency in the business,” explains Mr Dupont, “It’s more difficult to buy beans directly than to get them from a trader in Holland.”

“We prioritise the farmers we are already working with, we like to buy more from them. But we always try to keep aware of which qualities are around,” said Dupont (photo: Hana Grohová)

On the contrary, big companies often keep their costs low so the producers must follow up with this behaviour. “The farmers have to either exploit the human or natural resources to be able to make a product at the low market prices,” adds Mr Dupont.

As follows, the first step of the process – growing a coffee plant – becomes more challenging because of climate change.

Moving up the hill on the horizon

A recent study estimates that by 2050, the amount of land that can sustain coffee will have fallen by 50 percent because of global warming. 

Coffee needs specific conditions to grow.  A usual plant of Arabica prefers semi-shaded areas with temperatures between 18 and 21 degrees. Above those temperatures, the fruit’s ripening accelerates (in fact, coffee beans are the pit, or seed, of the plant’s fruit). According to Vox, the plants also need a specific amount of rain, a 3-month long dry season, and warm days and cold nights.

As a result, the optimal elevation for growing coffee moves higher up the mountain. The warmer climate is also ideal for pests and fungi.

Reducing emissions where we brew coffee

Climate change poses a challenge to the coffee industry in many ways – reduced growing area, increased pests, and loss of quality. Peter Dupont is aware of the threats and says the company is willing to fight global warming.

“40 percent of the total emissions is right here where we brew coffee. We had to start by ourselves to reduce the emission in the place where we work and live. Firstly, we changed all our electricity to windmills so we cut a big part of the emissions and mitigated our impact on the planet. Last December we joined a group of net-zero plans which is supposed to emit no gases by 2030,” Mr Dupont described.

Powered by green electricity, the machine can roast up to 30 kilograms of green coffee beans (photo: Hana Grohová)

However, these changes might be inconvenient for the roasters or coffee drinkers but they can be devastating for the farmers. There are several ways to tackle climate change – farmers can not only move their plants higher uphill, they can also use shade trees or grow more resistant varieties of coffee.

But because of the low market prices, farmers do not have enough money to make these changes.

Knowing your farmer’s story

Coffee suppliers are significant for Coffee Collective’s business. “At first we choose someone who can give us a good quality product, then we dive a little more into what kind of people they are and then we like to go and visit them and make a contract,” Mr Dupont said.

“It’s more about interaction than about having a list of demands.” Dupont on the attitude towards the farmers (photo: Hana Grohová)

Therefore, they are trying to support farmers economically. “The current dialogue is with farmers who already have been working on tackling environmental issues. In my opinion, that’s a very important mental angle, that they realize the issue and when it comes to that, they can be very innovative. We need to stimulate that by giving them an opportunity that comes from paying them fair money,” Mr Dupont described.

Not only roasters and coffee companies can contribute to improving farmers’ situation. Every regular coffee drinker can think about where their coffee comes from. “We started in 2007, before that we worked as baristas, so we knew from talking to consumers that they were interested in stories. We knew we could make a business where we could focus on that – only buying coffee from farmers and communicating their story,” Mr Dupont said.

For customers, it’s a jungle according to Dupont. “Many companies are good at telling exciting stories about their coffee.” (photo: Hana Grohová)

According to him, this could also help farmers: “When you buy your coffee, ask where they get it from, ask how the farmer is paid with these particular beans. Then, depending on whether you received a good answer or not, you should go somewhere else.”