We're All Guilty Of Pushing Coffee To The Tipping Point

We are rapidly approaching a moment when coffee production will start to decrease at a rate untenable from a supply/demand perspective.
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For as long as I've been in the coffee industry, sustainability has been something I thought about on a daily basis. It's been rewarding to see the progress we've made in helping farmers live a better life, mitigated some of the environmental impact of growing, processing and drinking coffee, and raised awareness about what is really going on in the coffee world.

However, it has also become abundantly clear to me as the years have passed that the progress has been too slow, by orders of magnitude, and that we need to pick up the pace if we are going to succeed in keeping the coffee industry healthy and, eventually, prosperous for all.

Hyperbolic as it may sound, we are rapidly approaching a tipping point — where coffee production will start to decrease (it already has in many countries) at a rate that will be untenable from a supply/demand perspective. It's a tragedy of the commons, and only together as a collective force for good will we be able to remedy the underlying environmental, social and economic issues that have plagued coffee for so long.

Environmentally, it is expected that by 2050, if nothing is done, only half of the current land under cultivation will still be able to grow coffee. Yet demand is also expected to double. We are already in a situation where five countries grow roughly 70 per cent of all of the world's coffee, so putting additional strain on the land that we do have is problematic to say the least.

Coffee farmers work within a broken financial system, which undercuts their ability to turn a profit.

Socially, because of the poor conditions in the coffee growing fields of the world, generations of coffee farm workers and small holder farmers alike are fleeing for urban centres. A glimpse of a better life through education, steady employment opportunities and technologies we all take for granted — phones and televisions — give farmworkers just enough incentive to leave in search of opportunity, if they can. The generational crisis is real. In Colombia, the average age of a coffee farmer is around 56, and in Kenya, 60. Who are the farmers of the future?

And then there is the economics of coffee, which really is the big, pervasive issue: profitability is at the crux of it all. Coffee farmers work within a broken financial system, which undercuts their ability to turn a profit, because the majority of them have almost no control over what price they sell their coffee for. Without profitability, how can a farmer take better care of their workers, or the land?

Another crucial issue farmers face is inflation, or lack thereof. As the costs associated with production have risen with inflation (such as inputs and labour), the market for coffee has seen no inflationary increase rise in their selling prices. To put that in perspective, on May 9, 1988, coffee commodity price was $1.34 per pound. Today the price is $1.15 per pound. Those are unadjusted numbers — the actual value of coffee, 30 years later, has gone down.

If coffee prices rose at the same rate of inflation as the rest of the consumer index, the C market would put coffee prices somewhere around $8 per pound. And if that was the case, we wouldn't be having this discussion right now.

The actual value of coffee, 30 years later, has gone down.

If you asked 10 coffee experts how they would define "sustainability," you would get 10 different answers. If you asked those same experts how to actually make coffee sustainable, you'd get another 10 different answers. And herein lies our problem.

For all of our efforts, we have not done a good enough job in making the concept of sustainability something tangible and understandable. It has remained an esoteric idea in a time when everyone understanding exactly what we need to achieve to ensure the future of coffee, and the people who produce it, is more important than ever.

So while I would argue that those acting in opposition or with ignorance to progress on the sustainability front are our industry's worst offenders, those of us who care deeply about it are also guilty. It is time for both big and small ideas, outside-the-box thinking, collaboration and creating a sense of community around the issue, so we may solve it all together.

Everyone can have a positive impact — we just haven't done a good enough job of kicking open the door and letting everyone in, so we can solve the problem together.

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