Challenges abound for coffee but progress continues

At the conclusion of every SCAA Expo I’ve attended since joining T&CTJ, I always have the same thought, “I need more time.” I continually feel there are more booths I need to visit, people to see and of course, coffee to taste. This year, the Expo had a new name the “Global Specialty Coffee Expo” (GSCE), reflecting the new Specialty Coffee Association that was established following the merger of the Specialty Coffee Association of America and the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe. As such, I devised a new strategy for the GSCE, which took place in Seattle, Washington, 20-23 April—less time in education sessions and other “extracurricular” events (important as they all are) and more time on the actual show floor. And yet, even with my new I strategy, by the end of the show, I felt I still needed more time.

However, my time off the show floor was well spent. Of the selected events I attended, one was the Rainforest Alliance breakfast, and another was the World Coffee Research General Assembly meeting. The Rainforest Alliance has been fighting to protect rainforests–every minute, 50 acres (20 ha) of rainforest are destroyed, and two dozen species become extinct every day–and develop sustainable agricultural standards for 30 years. RA’s first sustainable agricultural standard was created in 1993 (bananas first, followed by coffee). Today, 111 crops are RA-certified.

A running theme throughout GSCE educational sessions and events, as well as at the Re:co Symposium that preceded the Expo, were the ever-present challenges coffee faces today and in the future, primarily climate change, farmer income and socioeconomic factors. Alex Morgan, Rainforest Alliance’s global direct of markets transformation, outlined seven challenges impacting crops like coffee (and cocoa) during the breakfast. At the top of list, and not surprising, was aging farmers. “The average age of farmers is increasing and the younger generation is not as interested in farming,” he said.

Other problems affecting crops like coffee are increased competition for land from products like palm and rubber (the demand for rubber is expected to more than double in the next 10 years, coming from Chinese tires), as well as pests and diseases. Of the socioeconomic issues, the leading one is labor challenges (farm workers). Morgan explained that “deforestation persists and with deforestation and conversion, we are losing our soils.” And he stressed that “climate change is real.”

To combat these challenges, the Rainforest Alliance is “moving beyond compliance to focus on performance coupled with compliance,” said Morgan. The RA will seek out efficiencies with other standard-setting bodies and move beyond the top-level approach to the landscape or jurisdictional approach. He added that the RA will also make certification and programs more accessible, and will systemize farmer-management tools like the new Farmer App (for Android phones) that was unveiled at the breakfast. The app is currently in English but will be expanded to other languages such as Spanish, French and Bahasa.

The concept for an organization like World Coffee Research (WCR) was developed at one of the past Expos, and at this year’s show, WCR celebrated its fifth anniversary. At the General Assembly, Dr. Timothy Schilling, executive director of WCR, told attendees that by 2050, “we can expect a 50 percent reduction in suitable coffee-growing lands.”

He further noted that there has been a lack of coffee agronomy research and development. “We have 40 registered varieties of coffee, which reflects the fact that we have not done due diligence to adapt our crops.” However, on a positive note, Schilling highlighted what we do have because of WCR’s efforts. These include a global breeding program, a coffee varieties catalog, coffee seedling/nursery quality assurance (a verified program), a global coffee monitoring system and a global partnership to sustain supplies of coffee through R&D, to which Schilling pointed out is “funded by the industry, but guided by producers.”

So, despite the numerous challenges impacting coffee’s future, there are myriad positives resulting from researchers’ and the industry’s efforts to sustain coffee and farmers’ dedication and hard work to grow it. Fabulous coffees from many of the world’s leading specialty-coffee producers were on display–and available to sample–at the Expo. Unfortunately, I was unable to taste as many as I would have liked because, once again, I ran out of time…

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