Climate Change Is Stirring Up Trouble in Coffee Trade, Environmentalists Warn

Penny Starr
By Penny Starr | August 6, 2014 | 5:31 PM EDT

An environmental group is warning that there's trouble brewing for the coffee industry as climate change threatens the farms around the world that produce the beans.

That could be bad news for the world's coffee consumers - nearly one-third of whom reside in European Union countries, followed by the United States and Brazil.

"The vast majority of coffee production-more than 3 tons for every 4 tons grown-is exported, flowing from developing countries (like Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia) principally to industrial ones," states a press release on the report compiled by Worldwatch Institute Senior Researcher Michael Renner.

"Growers will need to pay increasing attention to climate change," the report states. "Rising temperatures, altered rainfall patterns, and rising pest incidence will increasingly affect future coffee production, requiring adaptation measures."

And yet, Renner's report begins by touting the "overall steady upward trend" of current coffee production.

"World coffee production during the 2013-14 crop year was just slightly over 9 million tons," the report states.

But, once those stats are served up, the problems facing coffee farmers percolate into the report, including a complaint that world market prices for coffee are decided on Wall Street and on the London stock exchange -- "far from the places where coffee is grown."

And there are other concerns about "the social and environmental conditions" in the places where coffee is grown: 45 percent of global output in 2012/13 was in South America, followed by Asia (30 percent), Central America (13 percent) and Africa (5 percent).

"The social and environmental conditions under which coffee is produced differ widely among countries," Renner's report states. "Concerns are far-ranging, including workers' rights and child labor, as well as the use of agrochemicals, deforestation, and impacts on biodiversity."

And, then, there's sustainability - the buzzword for all things environmentally-friendly.

In the case of coffee, the winning recipe is:

  • "Fair" trade (guaranteeing a minimum price for "smallholders"),
  • Organic (any pesticides that must be used have to be organic), and
  • "Utz Certified" (incorporating a set of social and environmental criteria).

Renner bemoans the fact that only eight percent of worldwide coffee exports meet those sustainability standards.

The best spot on the planet to find sustainable coffee? The Netherlands takes the cake with 40 percent "certified sustainable." In the U.S. that number is 16 percent.

The most interesting point in the report may be that, even with all this coffee brewing going on around the world, the drink still comes from one of only two kinds of beans: Arabica and Robustas. The former a "sweeter and milder type grown in higher altitudes" in Central and South America, and the latter "a more bitter flavor" grown in the lowlands of mostly Asia and Africa.

All this ruminating about the coffee trade can make one not only thirsty, but also a much more finicky consumer:

"I'll take a tall sustainable, socially-responsible Robustas, please. Hold the pesticides - unless they're organic."