A Day Without a Cup of Coffee

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By Debra Chase

Wild Arabica, the very first seed smuggled out of Arabia by Baba Budan during his pilgrimage to Mecca around 1600, traveled on to Paris and Martinique. The descendants of this seedling of coffee may just have a final resting place 810 miles from the North Pole, on the Norwegian Island of Spitsbergen. Banked into a great wall of ice is the Svarbard Global Seed Vault, also known as the Doomsday Vault. The vault houses over one third of the world’s food crop in seeds. And countries all over the world are regularly adding to it, saving the seeds and their unique diversity. It is noted on The Crop Trusts website that “the loss of a crop variety is as irreversible as the extinction of a dinosaur, animal or any form of life.” That is why they built the seed vault.

A newly-added member of the endangered food list, the coffee plant is being threatened from all sides. From droughts and deforestation in most major coffee producing regions to the “rust” fungus in South America, it doesn’t stand much of a chance. The coffee plant, like all plants, is very weather dependent, if it gets too much water, fungus grows, too little it dries out and dies. Coffee also requires a five-year growth cycle before producing just one pound of beans.

In 2012, researchers at Britain’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew together with scientists in Ethiopia, predicted that the end is near for wild Arabica coffee — Coffea Arabica. The researchers found, worst case, near extinction by 2080. That’s in just 65 years. Our children’s children may not have coffee at all. And this is a conservative estimate, according to the researchers, because it doesn’t take into account full deforestation. This is important to note because wild Arabica is thought to account for over 98% of coffee’s gene pool. The other main variety of coffee, the Robusta bean, lacks the genetic diversity of the wild Arabica and is more susceptible to disease.

The effects of climate change are changing how we farm, and how we eat. The planet heats up, causing long-term droughts, sporadic heavy rainfall, resilient pests, damaging frosts and extended freezing winters. All of this together places a heavy burden on agriculture throughout the world. In Brazil, the country that produces 30% of the world’s coffee, is currently in a drought not seen in 80 years. According to the Global Drought Information System , “In Africa, drought remains entrenched near the eastern horn, particularly around Kenya and southern Somalia.” Ethiopia is Somalia’s nearest neighbor and, is fifth on the list of top coffee producing countries. As the planet warms coffee production will have to move to climates cooler than current growing climates, production will slow dramatically and prices will rise.

On any day in just about any city someone is drinking, sipping, slurping and even eating it. It has more names than a con artist: macchiato, cappuccino, mocha, cortado, latte, java, cup of Joe and more. And like a good con artist it can make you feel on top of your game. You steam it, boil it, drip it through filters, push it through a French press and dip it in chocolate. Coffee is one food that almost the whole world will miss. Here in America over 54 percent of us over the age of 18 drink coffee every day, usually at breakfast, and over two thirds of us drink it with cream and/or sweetener. That’s a pretty large economic burden.

“Good to the Last Drop,” the Maxwell House slogan nearly 100 years old, may well be singing in an ironic end to the world’s most favorite drink.

“One more cup of coffee for the road
One more cup of coffee ‘fore I go
To the valley below”

Bob Dylan, One More Cup of Coffee

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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6 thoughts on “A Day Without a Cup of Coffee”

  1. Frankly

    This is an interesting piece.  Thanks to the author.

    And I hesitate to even write the following because I want more diverse content like this on the Vanguard.  Please don’t take it personally.

    But, I am really sick and tired of global warming fears being tied to everything related to the climate and weather.

    Now fear of coffee supply problems have been added to the list for why I should jump on the anti-industrialism, anti-capitalism band wagon.

    Frankly (because I am), with the drop in economic opportunity resulting from the demands of the climate change alarmists, there will be less reasons to even drink coffee.   I will just sleep in and then collect my check from the government thank you very much.

  2. Don Shor

    World demand for coffee is such that production will move into previously unplanted regions if there are problems in the current production areas. It is possible to even grow coffee in California: 
    http://goodlandorganics.com
    Just as avocado production may well move into the San Joaquin Valley, and citrus cultivation may move north, coffee production will not simply cease. So statements like “Our children’s children may not have coffee at all” are false and frustrating, and suggest a lack of understanding of agricultural economics.

    Climate change is going to have an impact on what crops are planted where. Changes in chilling hours for dormancy, changes in minimum winter temperatures — we are already seeing some impacts at both ends of the tree crop spectrum. USDA zones have been adjusted in the eastern US (especially the Southeast) due to earlier spring warming. But farmers adjust what they grow over time. I’d expect, for example, to see fewer cherry orchards in California over the next decade or so due to chilling hour issues. Or newer varieties with lower chill hour requirements become more widely used if they meet market standards. And we may well see mandarin orchards expand further into marginal regions (with respect to winter cold) due to the huge success of the Cuties marketing program. Coffee growers may be affected in some regions. But coffee will be with us.

    1. Barack Palin

      Sheesh, thank you Don.  For a second there I was afraid I was going to have to switch to tea or something else instead of having my 3 cups of Folgers in the morning.

    2. Tia Will

      Don

      Coffee growers may be affected in some regions. But coffee will be with us.”

      The question that I have is not whether or not coffee will be with us, but what will the impact of the changes that you cite be on the varieties available and their costs ?  Your thoughts ?

      It is also my understanding that similar changes and challenges are also being seen by those who grow cacao ? Do you have any knowledge about this ?

      1. Don Shor

        Here’s an excellent article that discusses the challenges facing the cacao industry, and the selection and breeding practices underway to overcome them: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-11-14/to-save-chocolate-scientists-develop-new-breeds-of-cacao
        Tropical crops always face special challenges. Cacao would be a great candidate for marker-assisted selection. If the price gets high enough (demand continues to outpace supply), that’ll happen. Probably already is. A decade ago the headlines were all about extinction of the Cavendish banana: “bananas as we know them will not be in existence in 5 to 15 years.” — 2003.
        Well, no. http://www.snopes.com/food/warnings/bananas.asp
        People who predict doom for agricultural crops tend to overlook the remarkable resilience of crop breeders.

  3. debra

    Agriculture’s dark passenger is climate change.  It will follow the farmer no matter where she is farming on this earth.

    Aldo Leopold said, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

     Shifting the agricultural production of coffee, corn, wheat etc…to higher altitudes or latitudes may work in some areas of the planet, assuming the economics also work , however there are other problems associated with that idea. Additional land would have to be deforested and cleared to accommodate growing these products. (Many coffee farmers are growing in full sun now, planting in rows for higher production). The cutting and clearing of forests is one of the main problems of large scale agriculture. A monoculture is created, soil is degraded with the use of commercial fertilizers. This process contributes to climate change as trees are the main user of carbon and the main producer of oxygen.

     There are social issues. One of which are the sustainable coffee growers, those that still grow in the shade of the trees present in the forests. They will not be able to move their farming operation. If the heat and drought and heavy rains of climate change prevent them from growing coffee in their traditional manner, what will their choices be?

     Another issue concerning coffee is that of water. It takes about 37 gallons of water to grow 1 cup of coffee beans. This is an important consideration in countries that are currently under severe drought conditions like Brazil and Ethiopia. California is also in a severe drought so growing coffee here may not be an option because farmers will see the high cost of water, like the rice growers of today, and choose not to grow the coffee crop in the quantities needed to make it affordable to most consumers. As our drought continues tough decisions are being made about how that water will be used.

     Then we have the GMO scientists that are researching ways to create a coffee seed that can withstand the droughts, the high heat and the lack of water. If that were to occur then the seed diversity is gone and like the wild Arabica it becomes a resident of the Dooms Day Vault. The loss of seed/plant diversity removes the plants natural protection from diseases and pests.

     We have been farming small in Colusa County for over ten years now and we have seen many changes, from the loss of our bees to colony collapse to our current peach crop under jeopardy from the low frost days last winter, to name a few. So I will leave you with a few things to do/ponder:

     Read Kristin Ohlson’s book : The Soil Will Save Us, How Scientists, Farmers and Foodies are healing the soil to save the planet.

    Listen to the environmentalist Bill McKibben and what he stated in an interview with the Huffington Post in September of 2014: “We’ve raised temperature one degree. We’re headed for two degrees even if we do everything right, so at the moment we’re headed to an increase of four or five degrees Fahrenheit this century. If we let this happen, we can’t have civilizations like the ones we’re used to,” he explained. “We just won’t be able to grow the grain to support them.”  

     Be a responsible citizen we are the guardians of our future generations, we have to make better choices. We can’t depend on our governments and corporations to make those choices for us.

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