The Pursuit of Taste: How Obsession with Quality is Intensifying Climate Change and Putting Farmers at Risk

by Chandler Meyer

We’ve got a problem in the coffee industry. Most of the world’s coffee is extremely limited in genetic diversity, with only eight out of 120 species of the Coffee genus being cultivated by farmers. Because of this lack of genetic diversity, coffee plants are highly vulnerable to changes in weather and disease. Projections show that with every passing year, drought, temperature extremes and disease will become more prevalent, and destructive farming practices will continue to deteriorate soil. With these conditions, the amount of suitable land for coffee could be cut in half. Not only will the amount of coffee land be cut in half, but the world will have to produce twice as much coffee to meet future demand. To meet this challenge, the coffee industry is going to have to focus their efforts on breeding new varieties that are more resilient to climate change, disease, and undesirable soil conditions, and put the pursuit of quality on the back burner.

Concern over climate change and sustainability is nothing new in the coffee world. In the past few years, coffee farmers have implemented practices that increase their use of natural fertilizers, pesticides, and shade trees, reduce soil erosion, and conserve water. As great as these practices are for the coffee plant and the environment, they can only do so much. Genes form the foundation of a coffee plants success. For example, genetics is primarily responsible for how efficient a coffee plant is at using fertilizer. An ineffective plant given excess fertilizer is a waste of time and resources, to the detriment of both the farmer and the consumer.

When it comes to disease, the lack of genetic diversity is even more concerning. After coffee rust devastated many farms around the world, coffee farmers looked to new varieties that would have resistance. However, they were extremely limited in their options, with very few coffee varieties exhibiting both disease resistance and good taste. Most of them replanted their fields with a single new variety. However, it is only a matter of time until this new variety is also overcome by coffee rust. This type of planting, in which you plant one single crop, is called a monoculture. And in these conditions, disease can quickly develop resistance and knock out an entire farm in one blow. “Modern” agriculture has trapped itself in a vicious cycle. When disease strikes, we plant a single new resistant plant. In a short time period, the disease develops resistance, and then we scramble to create the next new resistant plant, and the cycle starts all over again. It’s time to get off this treadmill and return to nature.

The solution to disease is not only creating new resistant varieties, but having multiple varieties in a field at once, using ecological principles of diversity to our advantage. Greater diversity creates less pressure for the disease to develop resistance. And even if the disease does develop resistance to a variety, the farmer has other varieties that continue to survive when disease strikes, a sort of back up or “insurance”.

Unfortunately, coffee farmers are limited in their ability to plant these diversified systems, so its likely that in less than five or ten years, coffee rust is going to wipe out these farmers once again, devastating farms and the coffee supply. If all that weren’t bad enough, plant breeding is a long, complicated process. To breed a new variety, it can take anywhere from 5-20 years, or longer. The ideal coffee plant would have three things: high yields, disease resistance, and good taste. Creating a new variety improved in one trait, like resistance, is difficult enough, but focusing on three traits at once creates greater complication.

So we find ourselves in an unfortunate situation: there are few varieties of coffee plants, most of these plants do not have high yields, disease resistance, and exceptional taste, and it’s going to take a long time to develop ones that do. Farmers are put in a tough situation, if they focus primarily on taste, they put themselves at risk for low yields and attack of coffee rust. If instead they decide to plant varieties that are well adapted to the environment and achieve high yields and disease resistance, they run the risk of not having high enough quality to attract specialty roasters that will give them a good price. Often coffee farmers are asked by roasters to plant particular varieties with exceptionally good taste, and then when these plants grow poorly or are wiped out by disease, these roasters move on to new farmers and the old farmers are left with devastated fields. Is this the type of relationship that roasters and farmers should have? Should roasters demand exceptional quality, even if it means putting farmers at risk, and then abandon the farmers if the crops perform poorly?

The truth is, consumers and coffee roasters ultimately decide what a coffee farmer plants in his or her field. We are the ones that decide what the world wants out of a cup of coffee. A cup infused with the flavors of respect and compassion for the people who grow it and the environment seems like the most flavorful cup of all. A long time advocate for the Maya Vinic community, Julio Ortega, said, “Coffee gives flavor to life, but you have to have the flavor of life to enjoy the coffee”