Is coffee in a state of crisis?
Food writer Jeff Koehler talks about whether there is a sustainable future for the bean
Coffee is not essential to life, but for coffee lovers it is as life-sustaining as water. No wonder it is called a legal drug. Honoré de Balzac produced a prodigious amount of writing—85 novels in 20 years—with his 50 cups a day. But today, the miraculous bean is facing its biggest crisis, with climate change affecting yield and a fungus called la roya, or the coffee rust that thrives on free moisture and warmer temperatures, evolving with each outbreak.
In 2014, as la roya raged across Central America, 70% of coffee fields took a hit. Yields plunged, 500,000 people lost jobs and losses totalled approximately $1 billion (around Rs6,400 crore now). Today, demand far outstrips supply. The only exception is Ethiopia. Ethiopians don’t even have a local name for coffee rust—the plant disease is hardly a threat there. This is the idea that food writer Jeff Koehler explores in his latest book, Where The Wild Coffee Grows. For him, the solution to a coffee crisis lies in Kafa, a province in Ethiopia where the first fruit grew.
Koehler, who was in Mumbai for the Times LitFest in December, is best known for his 2015 book Darjeeling: A History Of The World’s Greatest Tea. “When I finished Darjeeling, I started reading about the origin of coffee.... And I realized that Ethiopia doesn’t have a single page in the history of coffee. Ethiopians have no script and these things weren’t written down. So, I needed to be able to go into the forest and listen to their story for myself,” he says. The book charts Koehler’s attempt to discover coffee’s origin, understand why Kafa wasn’t recognized as its birthplace, how coffee travelled the world, and why its future is now uncertain.
The people of Kafa believe coffee originated in the rain-soaked forest of Mankira. The heart of this forest still contains the original mother tree or bune inde, the oldest tree that led to the growth of coffee everywhere. This is where Koehler had an important realization: “Walking into Mankira was an experience I was really lucky to have. As Mesfin Tekle, the leading authority on the forests of Kafa, says in the book, wild coffee trees are a part of the forest and are not only about the drink but also serve a purpose in the ecosystem,” says Koehler.
The remoteness of the forest can be gauged by the effort it takes to reach it.“In order to reach the forest, we had to cross the Gumi river. It was raining and I had to wade through waist-deep water barefoot and injured my ankle on my very first step. The risks—a sudden gorge below and flash floods—are quite high,” says Koehler. But the farmers do this regularly (on foot); hardly anyone has a mule.
The forest, teeming with numerous species of coffee, is a genetically diverse paradise. It’s an advantage most coffee plantations don’t enjoy. For example, most of the coffee in Central America comes from just one tree, the Noble Tree. This lowers resistance to coffee rust and limits the flavour profile of the bean. And yet, though Ethiopian farmers, with 99.8% of the genetic diversity of Arabica, grow one of the best coffees in the world, they remain the poorest. The key to beating la roya and empowering farmers is the same.“If the Ethiopian government is able to allow scientists to find new coffee varieties that are resistant to the disease and track royalty on the beans, it’ll be able to recover the money that should have been rightfully theirs. It is not fair that a lot of people outside make a lot of money while the Ethiopian farmers live hand to mouth,” he says.
So is there a sustainable future for coffee? In the wild, coffee remains in the shade, produces the fruit every alternate year and possesses a wonderful concoction of flavours. But this kind of slow growth would make it impossible to keep up with the world’s needs. Today, the coffee plant is often grown in the sun, just to produce 400 million cups a day for the American market alone—and crops are wilting. “The demand—in the US, where consumption of coffee is the highest—is going up like crazy. This kind of production is not sustainable in places like eastern Ethiopia, where it’s too dry. Although they are growing more coffee than before, they still need to cut down production. You need to plant more shade trees to have a sustainable future for the plant but that means losing 20-30% of yield, for which farmers need to be compensated. It’s hard to imagine stopping it because of the money involved, but, at some level, it has to stop. The shade trees are part of a whole ecosystem which goes back to the idea of coffee as part of the natural forests of Ethiopia,” adds Koehler.
And indeed, in Kafa’s cloud-covered rainforests, coffee doles out a valuable life lesson—to go slow and diversify. A lesson we need to heed before it’s too late.
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