Why The Days of Quality Coffee Might Be Numbered
#UKCoffeeWeek is in full effect this week with more ways to support coffee growing communities and enjoy a caffeinated beverage. This year UK Coffee Week 2018 and thousands of coffee shops across the UK is joining forces with Project Waterfall to raise funds for their next developmental project in the rural Jabi Tehnan district of Ethiopia.
From April 16-22, residents in the UK can frequent participating coffee shops to help support the cause.
With this inviting prospect in mind, we want to share with you some news from the coffee world: Arabica beans, the starting point of your favourite brew, are at risk.
How Much Coffee Do You Drink?
If you’re anything like us, you know how a cup (or more) of coffee in the morning is essential to start and keep you going throughout your day.
For something that we love and consume so much and so often, it goes without saying that we want only the best quality coffee coming out of our coffee machine.
As you can see above, we produce millions of coffee bags every year (a standard coffee bag weighs 60 Kg) and we consume tonnes of it: Finland ranks first in per capita drinking with more than 10 Kg per person every year. The tea-drinking United Kingdom comes very low in these ranking with a per capita coffee consumption just short of 3 Kg per year.
Different Varieties of Coffee
For several hundreds of years, cultivating and producing coffee has been a prerogative of countries such as Ethiopia, Indonesia and almost the whole of South America, where the best beans thrive; and it’s from these countries that we are unfortunately reporting bad news.
There are dozens of variations of coffee plants and species, however, only 3 of them are cultivated and sold worldwide: Arabica, Robusta and Liberian.
This last one takes up a very minor market share as it is mostly only produced in West Africa and rarely encounters the export market.
The famous Arabica beans, largely considered some of the best variants of coffee in terms of taste and quality, are by nature very delicate: they can only grow in certain temperature and altitudes and are very susceptible to diseases and pests that can ruin entire plantations.
For this reason, many countries – especially in Latin America – are testing an increase of production of Robusta, a stronger, more resilient variation of coffee plants that are, however, poorer in quality and thus usually dedicated to instant coffee and lower quality blends.
While some countries are against the mainstream spread of Robusta as our first choice coffee beans, large companies like ANACAFE in Guatemala, are boosting it and buying more fields for it.
However, Robusta still counts for a smaller percentage of the total coffee produced and we still produce lots of Arabica, so we should still be safe for a long time. Right?
No. The fragile nature of Arabica plants and their unique genes means that they are on the fast lane towards extinction, and the perils of diseases and changing temperatures around the world will fasten this dire process even more. We have seen this happen in the past already: both in 1890 and more recently in 2009 a leaf epidemic wiped out large chunks of the Arabica population in Latin America and certain parts of Asia.
Pesticides: Problem or Solution?
In a great effort to avoid this from happening, some companies – and the World Coffee Research (WCR) – are trying to crossbreed Arabica with other plants in order to make it stronger while preserving its beloved taste.
This strategy, together with the use of mass pesticide, has always been frowned upon, and many believe that it’s not the way we should approach the Arabica problem, but rather we should focus on sustainable farming practices.
Chemical treatments are never a positive aspect of our food and drink industry, nonetheless, untreated organic coffee is more susceptible to bacteria and fungi that grow spontaneously on the beans; on the other hand, sustainable practices like shade-grown coffee are less efficient and they still do not provide the same level of security.
Will Arabica Go Extinct?
If there is no change in our current approach to global warming and we are unable to stop pests from feasting on Arabica beans too much, the coffee that we all know and love might go extinct before 2080.
However, the same global change of temperatures that will make it impossible to grow Arabica where it is growing now, could possibly make other places potential candidates for new coffee plantations. Thus if we are lucky enough, we will keep drinking Arabica for many more years, perhaps just grown in new, unexpected places.