Jordan: I know that a lot of you listen to this podcast while sipping your morning coffee. And so for today’s episode, I apologize. I guess maybe enjoy it while it lasts? Coffee is one of those simple daily pleasures that so many of us take for granted. It’s always available. It’s pretty cheap, unless you want to be really fancy. And you can get it on just about every block. Until you can’t. To be clear, I’m not saying coffee is vanishing tomorrow and you better stock up, but it is in a lot more trouble than you probably know. The beans and the plants, yes. But also the hundreds of thousands of jobs around the world that farming coffee provides. And those jobs are often in places where there aren’t many other kinds of work. So what is pushing coffee to the brick? Well, a strange little fungus to start with, but also– and you probably know where I’m going with this– us. We are changing the world. We have been for decades. And the new world? Not great for coffee plants, it turns out. So what can we do about it? I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Maryn McKenna is a science journalist. She is also the author of Superbug and Big Chicken. Hey Maryn.
Jordan: Why don’t you start today, before we get into the specifics of coffee and why I should be terrified about the future of my coffee, by telling me a little bit about Elmer Gabriel? Like, who is he? What’s he like? And how did you meet him? What problems does he face?
Maryn: So Elmer, as he would say it, is a small farmer way up in the mountains of Guatemala, outside a town called San Pedro Yepocapa, which is a center of coffee production. So to make everything else I’m about to say makes sense, it’s important to know that most of the people who produce coffee, the coffee that we all drink every day, are really small farmers. And for the most part, working small properties in places that isn’t really suited for growing many other things. In the case of Elmer’s farm, it’s up among volcanoes. Volcanoes literally rumbled the ground while I was meeting him and there was a fine dusting of ash on a lot of his plants. So a farmer who grows coffee doesn’t have a lot of choices. And Elmer is one of those people. He has a small plot of land that he bought himself. He’s a coffee farmer by trade, though he has a second job. His father was a coffee farmer, his son hopes to be a coffee farmer. And in the area where they live, there aren’t too many other things to do. I met him because I was introduced to him by a project that’s jointly based in Central America and in Texas, at Texas A&M University. It’s a project that has a very long title in both English and Spanish, but aims to improve the plants that coffee producers are growing to protect their livelihood, which is really under threat.
Jordan: So what is threatening coffee? Because if it’s such a marginal living to scrape out, I imagine it’s gotta be pretty precarious for people like Elmer.
Maryn: Coffee is extremely precarious. And the scary thing about this and scary thing, both for the farmers and for all of us who love coffee is that it’s under threat from multiple directions at once. One of those, sort of the background, everything is that none of us really pay very much for coffee. Neither at the retail point where we all buy our coffees every day, if we are leaving the house or in markets otherwise, and also at the wholesale level. Coffee prices aren’t that high, which means not a lot of money flowing to the farmers. But the acute threat, which actually makes that background throughout even more serious, is a disease called coffee leaf rust, which is a fungus that undermines the production of the coffee plants by destroying their leaves, keeping them from photosynthesizing, taking up nutrition and producing the fruit, the seed of which is the coffee beans that produce this liquid that we all adore. And rust is a very long standing problem, but recently it’s gotten much worse.
Jordan: How so?
Maryn: So coffee rust is not a new problem. The first notice that it existed actually was published back in 1869 in a British agricultural newsletter. And already at that first recognition, coffee rust was a very serious problem. Where it was identified was in British colonial possessions in the Indian ocean, primarily in the country that we now call Sri Lanka, but was called Ceylon at the time. And in about 10 years, it completely wiped out coffee production in Sri Lanka, turning it into a tea growing nation instead. Eventually coffee rust crossed the Atlantic and started to move through from South America up into Central America and into the coffee growing areas that we’re talking about right now. But it was always able to be controlled by agricultural chemicals. And then just over the past couple of years, coffee rust got much more virulent, to the point that the agricultural chemicals that the farmers buy, fungicides, which are expensive and not something they want to spend money on if they don’t have to, because they don’t have much in the way of income, those chemicals couldn’t control it anymore.
Jordan: Do we know why the fungicide stopped working? Did the fungus mutate?
Maryn: That would be the sort of natural conclusion that we’d all jumped to, right? That there must be something in this pathogen that’s different. Well, it turns out there aren’t very many people in the world who actually study coffee leaf rust, or all the other rusts, of which there are very many. Rusts are a vast family of plant pathogens that also affect things like wheat, for instance. There’s a very potent wheat rust sweeping the globe right now. And so those few scientists working with very big databases of the genomes of rusts started to look at coffee, because coffee is such an important crop. And what they concluded is that there actually hasn’t been a mutation. The problem is not the pathogen. It’s the underlying conditions becoming more friendly to the pathogen. And what is creating those underlying conditions is climate change.
Jordan: What kind of underlying conditions are you talking about?
Maryn: So, This is a fungus, right? If you think of this sort of fungi that grow just around our lives, for instance, if you have mushrooms that grow in your garden, you tend to see more mushrooms after it rains, right?
Maryn: Fungi like damp and they like warmth. Mushrooms don’t grow very much in the winter. So climate change is making things more warm all over the globe. In places that are rainy, it is making them more rainy. And it’s also making them differently rainy than they were. So when rains come, they are less predictable and they’re much more drenching. All of those things together create a backdrop for this crop. That’s not what this crop evolved to grow in. So first the coffee plants are struggling. They’re not getting the nutrition they need. They’re getting more water than they need. And also that warmth and that dampness from all that rain is probably the perfect conditions for coffee rust to grow.
Jordan: Can you give me a sense of the scale of this problem? How widespread is the rust and how fast is it spreading?
Maryn: Coffee is one of the most traded agricultural commodities on the planet, depending on who’s counting and exactly which commodities they’re talking about. It moves up and down the top 10, but it’s definitely in the top 10. So it’s an enormous crop. And rust has now moved all around the world after this crop. So there are very few places where coffee is grown, where rust has not become a problem or where climate change has not undermined the plants in other ways. There are something like a hundred million people around the globe who in some way draw their income from coffee, whether they’re at the retail end, or wholesalers, or scientists, or traders, or these tiny farmers that we’re talking about. And all of those are under threat as coffee becomes wobbly.
Jordan: When you say wobbly, I mean, how precarious are we talking about here? You know, are we talking about 10 years down the road and we’re looking for synthetic coffee replacements? Like what’s the risk level here?
Maryn: Well, it really depends on who you talk to. There are farm families that have just completely given up. One of the things that happens at the US border with Mexico is that when people are apprehended crossing the border illegally, the people who apprehend them attempt to find out where these migrants came from. And large numbers of migrants over the past couple of years have been coming from the coffee growing areas, such as Guatemala, because their farms have become not sustainable. Literally unaffordable to keep running. And so they give up the property, they just walk away from it and they walk North, and they become economic migrants to the United States.
Jordan: We’ve covered climate change a lot on this show, and climate change related problems. And so I’m just going to assume that this means the problem’s already baked in to be getting worse over the next decade or two?
Maryn: We do not at this point seem to be taking any actions as a planet sufficient to mitigate climate change. So it seems a reasonable conclusion that coffee, as we know it is really under serious threat. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that coffee’s gone forever because we still have a window of opportunity in which to do some things better. And that actually is what brought me to the mountains of Guatemala, was not just to see in the bad shape that the farmers are in, but also to talk to projects that are attempting to make things better, either by showing the farmers other crops that they can grow as well, maybe growing in between their coffee plants that are suited to the same sort of conditions, or to bring them new plants that have been crossbred to be better for these new conditions. But all of this is complicated, because agricultural research is underfunded around the globe, and the plants are not going to be cheap. They’re either not going to be cheap to acquire to begin with, or they’re not necessarily going to be cheap to manage, or they may not have as long a life as the coffee plants that the farmers are growing now. So in a lot of ways there are potential solutions, but none of these solutions are going to be uncomplicated to create.
Jordan: How does that work when you’re crossbreeding the plants to make it more difficult for the fungus?
Maryn: There are many varieties of coffee in the world. Almost all of them fall into two species: Coffee Arabica and Coffee Robusta. Arabic is the one that we tend to prefer. Robusta is nowhere near as tasty. Different varieties have subtle differences that make them more or less suited for particular altitudes, particular weather patterns. But behind those two species, there are maybe other species of coffee, many of them still existing in the wild, many of them in sub Saharan Africa, which is the actual original home of coffee. And scientists are trying to get to those remaining species, harvest them, characterize them, figure out what qualities they have that make them more resilient to temperature, to precipitation, to produce berries more rapidly, to have a shorter reproduction cycle, and to get those varieties into, essentially breeding labs to create new plants. And we’re not actually talking here about GMO coffee, which is a concept that gets people very exercised. We’re talking about traditional cross-breeding. And traditional cross-breeding to create variety, grow a variety up through the couple of years it takes before a plant starts producing, and then test to see whether the variety is worth growing, whether the coffee cherries would be something that the market would welcome. That all takes a while, and the clock is ticking under this. So it’s a very complex undertaking.
Jordan: How do you manage to do something like that at the scale that’s needed to sustain the gigantic swaths of coffee farms?
Maryn: Well, it’s really a problem. You know, the kind of plant breeding that we’re talking about, if you went back, let’s say 50 years, this would have been supported by the green revolution that I think everyone’s heard of, you know, that huge investment by a combination of governments and also enormous private philanthropy, things like the Rockefeller Foundation, that brought drought resistant wheat to Subsaharan Africa and to South Asia and staved off famine in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Part of that movement, back 50 years ago, was to create national coffee institutes in all the places where coffee was a major cash crop. But a lot of those institutes have become severely underfunded or have been shut down because their government it’s just can’t afford them anymore. So the question is, where does the work that needs to be done in order to make sure coffee persists as a crop and uphold those farmers and produce these new plants, where does it come from? Part of what’s going on right now is that the coffee industry itself, the part of the coffee industry that actually makes money off this crop, the wholesalers, the big companies, the retailers, have clumped together in a number of efforts to flow some of that money back toward plant breeding and back to the farmers. The single biggest effort in this is a nonprofit organization called World Coffee Research. And if you looked at the list of the companies that support World Coffee Research and contribute money to it, you would recognize them as some of the biggest vendors or retail producers of coffee in the world.
Jordan: So, what are they actually doing to make sure that coffee survives the next 10, 20 years? Are they funding these crossbreeding plants? Are they expanding farms? Planting new plants? What are they doing?
Maryn: So sort of depends on where you go. There are parts of the world, big coffee growing economies like Brazil, where coffee is produced at very, very large scale. And that kind of coffee has the support of the companies that own those farms. For the small farmers who are an entire sort of stratum of the farm economy of coffee, and often produce the more high end, tastier coffee that we prefer. They really need a lot of support. They need direct cash investment. They need new plants. And they need what we would think of as sort of like field extension specialists, people to go into the field with them, bring plants to them, help them establish demonstration plots on their farms, to see which of these new varieties is most adapted to their local ecosystems, which may be really tiny micro climates on these crazy slopes that they grow on. And so the people who brought me to meet Elmer Gabriel are one of those projects. This group at Texas A & M who is helping to bring new varieties and hybrids, which are sort of freshly crossed plants that haven’t yet kind of settled in their characteristics, can’t yet be called a variety. They’re bringing those to farmers to show them that it’s possible to grow plants that will resist rust, to teach them new management techniques for these new plants, because they might need a little more management or watering at different times or fungicides at different times. And also to get the farmers to talk up these new varieties to their fellow farmers, people who would otherwise be very difficult to reach because they’re living in this very hand to mouth cash, you know, not very well networked, not very well wired farm economy up on the side of a volcano.
Jordan: What happens if that whole complicated process doesn’t really work? Do we just end up with the massive coffee companies running the whole thing, and we’re all drinking the same kind of coffee across the world? Like, I guess, what is at risk for the future of the business?
Maryn: You know, if you talk to somebody in the coffee business, I mean, coffee is their business. They don’t want us to think that coffee is going to go away forever. And you know, people will say, Oh no, we’ll always have coffee. But the reality is that just as with things like Heirloom vegetables that may be more resilient to climate change, but passed out of being grown because they weren’t appropriate to large scale production and justice with, you know, heritage strains of livestock that weren’t appropriate for the kind of broad scale, you know, thousands of animals at a time that we grow now. The kind of coffee that is most delicious and that most supports in farm older families in their dignity as individual economic answers, that’s what’s most under threat here. And so what is most needed are projects that get to those farmers to help them stay on their land, grow the crops they’ve always grown with new varieties that increase their income, and then as a backdrop to all of this, as I mentioned to start with, we have to figure out basically how to pay more for this thing that we all love. Because as with, you know, industrial chicken, as with industrial tomatoes, we are paying very little for crops that are probably– that we probably ought to be paying more for, in order to support a higher level of quality and a higher level of quality of life for the people producing them.
Jordan: If I’m a coffee lover who’s listening to this and worried about, you know, my favourite variety disappearing, how do I figure out which kind of coffee to buy, how much to pay for it, where my coffee money should go to ensure that, you know, the small scale farmers who produce these really interesting varieties survive?
Maryn: So I think a really good thing to do is to find a coffee merchant somewhere in your area. You know, someone you can talk to face to face if it’s possible to go out of your house and be face to face. And if not, someone who’s got a good web presence, who shows evidence of being in touch with networks that bring the work of individual farmers. So we’re talking basically about, you know, estate grown coffee. And estate doesn’t necessarily mean a very large and fancy place. It just means that we can locate that coffee at a particular farm, right? So people who are paying attention into the supply chain of coffee and tracing it all the way back to the individual farmers or the individual cooperative, that to me, makes it more likely that the money that those farmers need is actually going to flow all the way back down the chain and not just stop somewhere before it gets all the way to them. So, you know, just as we’ve come to think that it’s a good thing to know who your farmer is, it’s a good thing to know where your meat comes from, we should be paying attention to where our coffee comes from too. Because if we don’t ennoble the people, the individual small producers who are getting that coffee out of the ground for us, we may not have them anymore.
Jordan: Thank you very much, Maryn.
Maryn: Thank you for having me.
Jordan: Science journalist Maryn McKenna. That was The Big Story. If you’d like more head to thebigstorypodcast.ca, bring your coffee, make it hot. Find us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. Find us in your favourite podcast player, Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify, doesn’t matter. Leave us a rating. Leave us a review. You can also email us, we are at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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