Inside the Global Fight to Save Coffee

Inside the Global Fight to Save Coffee

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How do I take my coffee? Well in a various number of ways. Black, filter with no sugar. I love oat milk.

I enjoy really fruity naturals a lot of the time. Thick spoon of brown, black coffee. It's a kick. Everybody can take it the way they like it, as long as they're drinking it. Humanity consumes half a trillion cups of coffee every year. That's almost double what we consumed a decade ago. And yet, coffee production is one of the most antiquated industries in all of agriculture.

Climate pressures like drought, heat and blight are affecting food producers in different ways all over the world. As climate change becomes something we can taste. In the past year, hundreds of thousands of acres of coffee plantations were wiped out. And with 90% of coffee production taking place in developing countries, those least responsible for global warming are facing the greatest consequences of it. What's at stake are the livelihoods of around 125 million people.

Because if we're being honest, this is a plant that cannot hold on much longer in a changing climate. Here we are located in Acatenango. I am the fifth generation working coffee here. The farm has been in our family for a little bit more than 130 years. We have the good altitude to produce a specialty coffees all across the region.

The soil is volcanic soil. It's very rich, very new soils which are really good for coffee. This region that was traditionally producing a lot of coffee, now is producing less and less because producing coffee has been getting harder and harder.

On our right, we can see that we have the caturra varieties which are the traditional varieties that we have in Central America. Unfortunately, these type of varieties are affected by leaf rust, which creates a lot of stress and then we cannot produce enough coffee or good quality coffee. I think we are seeing the effects of climate change, right now.

I mean, it's gonna get worse for sure but we are facing those problems like, sometimes too much rain, sometimes too little rain. Unfortunately, we cannot change a farm in one year or two or five. It will take at least 10 years to replace the whole farm with these varieties that could be resistant to a lot of things. The lack of investment is the most critical. The industry has to find ways to support farmers.

There's a very specific region where coffee can be grown and it's called the bean belt. This is a region that's between about 25 degrees north of the equator and 30 degrees south of the equator. And virtually all the coffee we consume every day, is grown in this latitudinal belt. This is the area of the Earth where the crop is most easily grown. But it's not to say the coffee is easy to grow.

Coffee is the canary in the agricultural coal mine. As with so many other delicious specialty crops, coffee is very finicky. It's called a Goldilocks crop, so it requires just the right amount of rainfall and specific mild temperatures to thrive. It likes distinct diurnal rhythms, so differentials between day and night. All these different factors help the plant develop quality and flavor. Once you throw off those conditions in which coffee has evolved over millennia, it throws off flavor, it throws off the abundance and fertility of the crop.

Breeding new varieties is the most immediate challenge for safeguarding our coffee supply. One of the biggest problems of this crop, lies in its lack of diversity. We rely on just two species.

Arabica is the most highly produced bean. It's smoother, sweeter flavor means that it's preferred by most coffee drinkers. But arabica is increasingly succumbing to climate pressures. It's low tolerance to rising temperatures and susceptibility to disease have made it particularly vulnerable. Robusta, as the name suggests, can adapt better to changes in the environment and so it's easier and cheaper to grow.

But it's strong bitter flavor and high caffeine content, almost twice that of arabica, means it's better turned into instant coffee, a process which weakens its flavor and potency. Breeding hybrids of these two varietals can offer short term relief for farmers, but it's not a long-term solution that can ensure the survival of coffee. For that, we'll need a completely different approach. If we are looking for the next generation coffees that will be able to survive higher temperatures and lower rainfalls, where would we look? So in the old world in Africa, Madagascar and Asia there are 130 wild coffee species. Of those 130 species, 60% are threatened with extinction.

Our number one priority was a little known species called stenophylla coffee. This is a coffee species from West Africa and peaked many people's interest because it's said to have an amazing flavor. In fact, some botanists, some coffee people said, the flavor was superior to arabica. The other attribute, and one that's particularly important in terms of climate change resiliency, is the fact that it will grow in much warmer conditions. It will grow at nearly seven degrees Celsius higher than arabica coffee.

The problem with stenophylla, was the fact that we couldn't actually find the plant itself and moreover, the farmers didn't know anything about this coffee. So we went back to somewhere where we knew it had been collected in 1954 and we found a single plant, which was exciting, but not the resources you need to reinvigorate a species back into cultivation. We went further east, towards the Liberian border and after many hours searching, we found the healthy population of stenophylla. And from those plants, we'll start planting seedlings in an attempt to reinvigorate stenophylla coffee in Sierra Leone.

No longer term, the idea is that this coffee will be developed to look at some of its drawbacks, some of its issues, such as low productivity and work on those to produce a crop that's not only delicious, tastes wonderful but also has the productivity that's required for farmers to make a meaningful profit. Throughout history, breeding new crops that are better adapted to environments has been the most accessible, affordable and trusted solution. But traditional breeding has one big limitation: time. Now technology is being used alongside conventional approaches in the fight against our global crop crisis.

The genome of coffee was first sequenced in 2017. There's this whole new world that has now opened up to innovators who are finding ways to not only just understand the coffee genome but enhance its ability to respond to new growing pressures. So to breed a new variety of coffee it can take 20, 25, 30 years sometimes and in order to meet the challenges of today sometimes 30 years is just too much. Gene editing has the benefit of allowing us to achieve the same differences or the changes that we want to see in coffee, but much faster.

People have been studying plants and even coffee for several decades now. What they were missing is this tool to officiate the change very efficiently, for example, like CRISPR it's basically a tool that allows you to cut DNA in a very specific location. Robusta, in many ways it's considered maybe less palatable.

One of the reasons for that is that it has a much higher caffeine content than the more gentle arabica coffee. So using gene editing, we are able to shut down some of the genes associated with the production of caffeine in the plant. Another thing that we're doing is what's called the high solubility of robusta.

In the process of taking coffee beans and making them into instant coffee there's an industrial process to extract the coffee solubles and turn them into instant coffee. Through gene editing, we are able to make that process easier, more efficient and by doing the extraction more gently we are able to maintain more of the original taste and health qualities of coffee. So eventually our vision with instant coffee will be that it will have a lower cost of production but also the end product will taste a lot more similar to the kind of the natural coffee that we like and consume on a daily basis. This plant, two years ago was a normal coffee plant within then did the gene edit.

And from there, slowly we've been growing and growing and growing it until it's this size. So we are able to create a change relatively quickly within weeks or months today and start growing the plant and perhaps a plant like this that we've changed can be the first of its kind to have a big chunk of the market in the future. Coffee is an incredibly important crop. Coffee is the most consumed beverage globally after water. There's about 125 million people globally that rely on coffee for their livelihood.

So that's more than 1% of humanity. I think moving into the future, we see a massive increase in the need to improve yields and the resistance towards different diseases. And if you go to today to a coffee farm, the farmer will usually talk to you a lot about the need to increase water use sufficiency to fight diseases like coffee leaf rust, or coffee borer beetle. These are more complex applications compared, for example to low caffeine coffee.

And we benefit for now from almost six years of experience and we feel that we have the capabilities to tackle now these very, very challenging applications. One of many reasons that the farming of coffee production has been so slow to modernize is that we are still operating in this colonial structure. The wealthy consumers of the global north, consuming a product produced in the far less wealthy global south.

So if we do not empower the producers, if we don't create more direct relationships with the roasters and consumers there won't be an opportunity to adapt and modernize and that's got to happen. The traditional way of selling coffee has been producing coffee and just selling to local exporters that they will be selling the coffee to other places around the world, without having a lot of traceability or without us knowing where our coffee was going. Since 2006, after finishing college, I started to work here with my father and that was the first year that we have a direct trade relationship with a roaster in the US and since then we were able to sell 100% of our harvest to roasters across the world directly. This gave us a lot of stability, which in coffee is very rare.

Stability in prices for many, many years, more than 10 years of the same pricing, which is really good for us as farmers. We just finished the season, when we send the samples to all our buyers, but in order to send them samples we have to do the cupping first here at the farm. We have to taste every day of picking all the harvest is like around 120 samples. We have to roast them, we have to grind, then we cup it we evaluate the coffees and decided if that coffee goes to Europe or it's going to North America or it's going to Japan, Korea, depending on the flavor and the market that it's gonna go. Cupping allows producers to establish the different characteristics of a particular coffee bean and helps to determine the price, searchable market and all important cup score. Points are given for qualities like sweetness and acidity, but to be regarded as a specialty coffee, the score has to be above 80 points out of 100.

As specialty coffee increases in popularity, it's driving more direct relationships between farmers and roasters. This not only empowers farmers financially but also gives roasters access to higher quality beans. I'm sat here in our roastery where we receive green coffee in as a raw product and we roast it and then prepare it to package it and send it out to our customers. We're focusing largely on coffees that have been sourced directly from a coffee producer, that we know personally, that we've visited, that we've discussed pricing with, we've discussed processing with. And then our job is to turn that high quality coffee into a premium product by using advanced roasting techniques and then getting that out to our customers to enjoy it as if it was a product produced by that producer with full traceability and not just a generic product coming from that country. By focusing more on direct trade, we are very aware of the price that we've paid for the coffee but also how much of that goes back to the producer.

Being able to have these open conversations about their costs, their challenges and how much they think they should sell their coffee for, just helps to ensure that those producers get paid the money that they should for the product. We've spoken to quite a lot of coffee growers over the years that we've been doing this directly and every year they do talk about challenges. There are many different factors that surround the ability to harvest more coffee from a tree and environment is definitely one of those factors.

Too much rain, too little rain, frosts, bad weather conditions or very unreliable unstable weather conditions can have a very big impact on how much a coffee farmer could harvest per year. These environmental challenges do have a big impact on the global cost of coffee and of course the amount of money that a farmer can make from their coffee. If they are only able to produce half as much this year, they somehow do need to recover those costs, which will generally mean having to increase prices.

I don't think consumers fully appreciate how much climate change could affect the price of coffee. I think that's something that we're really seeing in its infancy at the moment. Climate change is a topic that's discussed everywhere all the time and we see lots of worldwide events in terms of flooding, forest fires but I think we're still at the early stages of people fully understanding the potential long term impact that could have on coffee producers. The coffee industry has the potential to massively change the lives of many coffee producers around the world if people are willing to pay a bit more money. More and more coffee roasters are pushing coffee toward a wine and vineyard model, where educated consumers who are willing to pay more can choose their varietals of coffee throughout a range of prices from farms and brands they know and relate to.

This can empower producers in a really important way. We need to increasingly educate consumers to understand that when they pay higher prices for these artisanal single origin direct trade coffee brands, more of that is going toward the coffee producer himself or herself and empowering that producer to bring new modern approaches to their production, to adopt technologies and to build more resilient operations. I think the most important part is that we are finally, as humanity, recognizing that climate change is here.

The rate of change of the environment and the needs in the field is moving so fast that there is a lot of room for advanced innovation to kind of catch up and make sure that we continue to grow coffee 10, 20 and 50 years from today and provide this, you know, incredibly important source of livelihood for 125 million people but also a beverage that we all consume a lot of. The challenge is massive, we have a growing population. People rightfully want to eat better. I'm not sure that we will have the privilege necessarily of saying, you know we want to use only this tool or that tool. I think that humanity needs to start using almost all the tools that it has in its arsenal in order to to make sure that people don't starve on mass. In just the last year we saw vineyards and maple syrup stands and almond orchards and tomato farms all succumb to climate pressures.

We're seeing in all these examples of climate impacts on food production, not just devastation but also alongside that, the effort to modernize production. This movement is growing to rethink and reimagine what sustainable production looks like. The solution is gonna require a blend of traditional sustainable farming methods and radically new technologies. Experimenting at the farm is key.

If we don't experiment in processing varieties, different ways of planting coffee, we're gonna be stuck in the past. Coffee is in our blood, is in our culture and this is not the greatest business but it's the only way that we have seen to survive. The land is adapted to produce great coffee so it's always risky, but I think it's very important for us to keep producing coffee.

2022-10-04 03:37

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