Could your morning coffee soon be a thing of the past? Huge surges in demand, dwindling supplies and an ageing generation of coffee farmers could all add up to $10 cups in the future. One organisation, World Coffee Research, and a group of dedicated roasters and importers are working to change that, warning that without serious investment into research and development, it could be the end for coffee as an affordable everyday habit.
We heard from some of the key players in the No Death to Coffee movement, launched earlier this month by Single O and World Coffee Research, about the current state of play and what needs to be done to safeguard the future of coffee.
Coffee consumption is set to double in our lifetime
The worldwide demand for coffee is set to double by 2050, fuelled by a relatively low cup price for the consumer and countries such as China with a burgeoning middle class. To keep up with this demand, there are two options: use more land to grow coffee or increase the output of existing coffee farms.
But climate change, disease and a lack of research and development mean that though coffee is one of the world's most important cash crops, it's also one of the most precarious.
Climate change could drastically alter where coffee can be grown
The viable land for coffee-growing is set to shrink by more than half as climate change alters weather patterns, according to World Coffee Research. That means the demand for coffee can only be met by getting more out of the land available.
World Coffee Research (WCR) was set up in 2011 to do just that. The non-profit body wants to develop new varieties that are more disease-resistant, can thrive in new coffee-growing areas in the future and that are of superior quality.
"Many people don't realise that all the fruits and vegetables that we eat have massive teams of researchers and geneticists working to improve the crop," Greg Meenahan, Partnership Director at WCR, says. "And not only to improve it to fight diseases but to create new varieties that meet consumer demand."
Coffee is way behind other crops in terms of science
First, the bad news: compared to the agricultural R&D that goes into wheat and other crops, coffee is somewhat neglected. It shows in the handful of varieties of coffee that exist, compared to hundreds or even thousands of varieties of other crops.
Coffee's lack of genetic diversity means one disease can have a devastating impact on entire farms or regions. That's exactly what happened when the fungus la roya reached Central America in 2012, causing coffee leaf rust and losses as high as 80 per cent on some farms.
The good news is that it's fairly easy for coffee to make headway on this front. Where it could cost $50 million to develop one new wheat variety, the bar is lower in coffee, meaning it's far cheaper to innovate. We're talking returns of almost 100 per cent, as opposed to 40–60 per cent on other commodities. So it makes sense for the industry to invest in this research.
The average coffee farmer is middle-aged
The average age of a coffee farmer is between 57 and 62 years old, meaning the industry's future is even more precarious. Attracting young people to the field is difficult, with the risks, low financial rewards and uncertain future of life as a coffee farmer. The Colombian government is working to create the next generation of coffee farmers, but World Coffee Research believes stronger foundations (that is, a profitable, attractive industry) will negate the need for such programs in the future.
Work is underway to breed coffee plants that can resist disease, drought and climate change
WCR is currently testing 31 coffee varieties in 23 locations around the world to figure out what grows best where. The idea is that plants that grow more easily are more sustainable in the long-run, because they require less water, fertiliser or other inputs, and can naturally thrive in their environment.
One researcher participating in the trial, Graham King of Southern Cross University in Lismore, describes it as crowd-sourcing data from around the world.
To make another comparison to the wine world, it's common knowledge that certain regions are better at growing grapes for particular varieties of wine. Why shouldn't it be the same for coffee?
"Our goal is to help these roasters sell as many beans as possible because the more beans they sell the more farmers benefit," Meenahan says.
So far, one variety developed through WCR's trial has been picked, roasted and is ready for brewing: the Starmaya, grown in Mexico and imported to Australia by Single O. It's available as a single-origin and has also been added to existing Single O blends Reservoir, Killerbee and Paradox.
The money for this research has to come from roasters and coffee-drinkers
Coffee farmers can't afford to fund this science. In many parts of the world, the average price paid for coffee beans in the wholesale market is lower than the cost to produce them. So, roasters and importers have to step up to the plate – as do drinkers. At the moment, WCR survives on a levy that its members voluntarily impose on themselves; it's a small percentage that they can afford to contribute to the research WCR is doing for the industry.
And if you have the choice between buying your morning coffee from a café that supports sustainable coffee and one that doesn't, make the sustainable choice.
Buying better coffee creates benefits that directly filter down to 12 million coffee farmers, who are among some of the world's poorest people. That kind of pay-off is rare.