How Canadians, coffee and climate change are connected

Specialty coffee businesses in Canada are paying premiums in an effort to get the best beans and keep growers afloat.

'It doesn't rain when it has to rain or it suddenly rains too much,' farmer says

Rogue Wave Coffee sources its beans from small farms with a focus on quality. (Axel Tardieu/CBC)

Coffee growers are facing a crisis: climate change is threatening coffee plants as more than half of suitable land is at risk of disappearing by 2050.

In a market where many farmers live in extreme poverty and struggle to turn a profit, specialty coffee businesses in Canada are paying premiums in an effort to get the best beans and keep growers afloat.

Rogue Wave Coffee in Edmonton sells gourmet coffee sourced from small farms throughout the world — but that task is getting more difficult.

"Just this most recent Ethiopian harvest season was delayed due to irregular rainfall," said David Laville, one of three co-owners. "So that made it tricky for the farmers to dry their coffee properly, with the rain coming later. It also meant that the coffee harvest season was delayed."

Laville said it's an example of climate change directly impacting a local economy.

"It would be like here in Alberta when the price of oil tanks; we see that impact."

A coffee bean roasting machine. (Axel Tardieu/CBC)

Espresso, latte, Americano — 500 billion cups of coffee are served each year around the world. According to the Canadian Coffee Association, seven in 10 Canadians drink at least one cup a day.

But coffee cultivation is becoming more unstable. Climate change is pushing the ideal elevation higher into mountainous areas as the lower coffee plants diminish in quality or die off.

According to a 2019 report from Columbia University's Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment, average warming in coffee-producing areas will be up 2.8 C by 2050 if nothing is done.

Lands used to grow Arabica and Robusta, the most widely-cultivated species in the world, would drop by 75 and 63 per cent, respectively. At the same time, global consumption is expected to increase by 26 per cent by 2030.

Industry and research

Within the industry, the problem has been known for a long time.

Tim Schilling, an agronomist who founded the World Coffee Research organization in 2012, says global agriculture has also seen the emergence of diseases like the rust plant disease, which reduced coffee production in Central America by half in 2013 and 2014. 

Small businesses and multinationals are making an effort to stem the tide.

In 2013, Starbucks acquired 240 hectares of land in Costa Rica to set up a laboratory farm. Researchers there test coffee varieties to find those most resistant to climate change.

Meanwhile, World Coffee Research is working with a dozen countries to cross-breed varieties, with the first results expected in 2022.

Schilling says they've put in around 100 strains from Ethiopia, where coffee was born, alongside the world's top 30 varieties.

Everesto Sanchez Vargas, left, has been trying to make his farm survive for a decade. (Everesto Sanchez Vargas)

According to the International Coffee Organization, El Salvador has seen its production drop by 63 per cent in the last 20 years, and Costa Rica by 47 per cent in the same period.

Some farmers have started growing cocoa, which is cheaper to grow and less labour intensive, while others sell their land and try to find other work.

Everesto Sanchez Vargas lives this crisis every day. He was born 45 years ago surrounded by coffee trees and runs a family farm in central Costa Rica.

"My harvest has been halved in 10 years," he said. "It doesn't rain when it has to rain or it suddenly rains too much. Either way, we lose the harvest."

Vargas estimates about 80 per cent of coffee producers in the area have sold their farms in the last five years.

The Canadian consumer

Every time he visits Costa Rica, Jeff Fleming, owner of Calgary-based Apex Coffee Imports, sees the effects of desertification.

"It's getting more and more challenging every year, due to factors like climate change, to produce good-scoring coffees that the amount of money that it takes an effort to produce a high-scoring coffee just doesn't pay," he said.

"In the end, they just can't get enough money for the coffee. So that's one of the reasons people are moving away from it."

A study conducted by the nonprofit Fair Trade USA between 2015 and 2016 found that four coffee-producing organizations in Peru, Honduras, Colombia and Mexico did not turn a profit. Almost 80 per cent of world production is by 25 million small producers who live in extreme poverty. 

The majority of buyers in the industry base prices on the value of coffee traded on the New York Stock Exchange — an unfair system, according to Chrissy Durcak, founder of Dispatch Coffee in Montreal.

"It's always been about $1 a pound, coffee is still traded on the stock exchange like oil," she said. "And it's not a commodity, it's something that costs a lot to produce as a specialty product."

A bag of coffee beans from Apex Coffee Imports sourced from Colombia (Axel Tardieu/CBC)

Since 2014, Durcak's company has tried to financially support producers at the end of the chain by paying a premium — sometimes three times the benchmark. 

If the quality is there, Fleming says he is willing to pay the price. 

"I visit these people every year and so I don't want to sit in someone's kitchen knowing that, 'Oh yeah, I put the screws to them last year, and I made 30 per cent more profit.'

But consumers also have a part to play, he said.

"A consumer has to be OK with paying, like, 25 cents more for a cup of coffee brewed," Fleming said. "If they just did that the trickle-back effect would be such that everyone could benefit along the supply chain."

Durcak said consumers who want to contribute solutions need to seek out specialty coffee brands and independent roasters accountable for the buying of the coffee.

With files from Axel Tardieu