Editorial: The global story in every cup of coffee

  • A worker dries coffee beans at a coffee plantation in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala in this Feb. 8, 2013, file photo. AP

Published: 6/20/2019 12:05:38 AM

So far this year, according to the Department of Homeland Security, nearly 600,000 migrants, most of them families with children, were apprehended by agents on America’s southern border. More than 200,000 of the detainees were fleeing Guatemala, many of them coffee farmers risking their lives because of falling prices.

In Concord, White Mountain Gourmet Coffee sells a pound of Fair Trade Guatemalan coffee beans roasted on site for $12 to $14. According to an article in the Washington Post, in 2015 the commodity price of coffee was $2.20 per pound. The price this year: 86 cents. Guatemalan farmers grow premium shade-grown arabica coffee that commands a higher price, but one still well below the $1.40 average cost of production. Drought and a coffee fungus possibly fueled by climate change has afflicted farms in Central and Latin America, driving up the cost of production. Thousands of coffee farms in Guatemala alone have been abandoned.

Coffee farmers from Honduras and other Central American nations are among the migrants. Farmers in Peru are abandoning coffee in favor of coca, the source of cocaine destined for the American market. What’s behind the collapse in coffee prices?

Many factors are blamed for the oversupply. Coffee trees take four years after planting to produce a crop. More trees are planted when coffee prices are high, creating the boom-bust cycles common in agriculture.

Brazil is by far the world’s leading producer of arabica coffee. Hardier robusta coffee trees that can be grown without shade at lower elevations are used primarily for instant coffee and cheap brands. Brazil had a bumper arabica crop last year that dragged down prices. Many of its farms are large and managed so crops can be harvested by machine rather than by hand.

The small farms that produce the best quality hand-picked arabica beans in nations like Guatemala, Honduras, Kenya, Ethiopia, Costa Rica and Sumatra sell most of their crop on the open market rather than to specialty coffee companies. Connoisseurs prefer coffee made with beans roasted light or regular rather than dark or French because the latter bakes out the coffee’s subtle mix of flavors along with some of the caffeine. Dark and bitter coffee has less of a “kick” than lighter brews.

Growers, many of them organized into rural cooperatives, also blame speculators who buy futures on the New York market that sets world prices for coffee. New entrants have also become a factor. Chinese millennials are switching from tea to coffee. China is now home to nearly 4,000 Starbucks stores. A new one reportedly opens every 15 hours.

To serve that market, Starbucks (and before it Nestle) has been helping Chinese coffee growers increase the quality and quantity of their coffee. Arabica growing conditions in China’s Yunan province are ideal, and some large farms are state-supported. Half of China’s coffee crop is exported, including to the United States.

Starbucks is among the coffee industry players trying to assist small-scale coffee farmers. If they disappear because they can’t compete, the distinct and wonderful flavors of their coffee could vanish.

What can a coffee lover do? Lobby Congress to reverse the Trump administration’s counterproductive cuts in aid to Central American nations, cuts that increase rather than decrease migration.

Buy fair trade coffee or, better yet, coffee from a roaster who buys directly from a grower or cooperative at a price that will allow small farms to survive. The alternative is industrial coffee from, as in much agriculture, one of a handful of international corporations that dominate the market.

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