Over 2 billion cups of coffee are consumed each day, with coffee being the second most valuable commodity traded in the world (after oil). Millions of people rely on the production, roasting, and sale of coffee to make a living. Brazil, Columbia, Mexico, Indonesia, and Vietnam are the world’s largest exporters of coffee. For some of the least developed countries, coffee accounts for up to 80% of export income.
Price Instability and Production Problems
Coffee prices are quite volatile due to speculation and production levels that can be impacted significantly by weather conditions. Beginning in 2010, Columbia has experienced years of heavy rains and flooding. Coffee plantations have been destroyed, limiting production. Roads and bridges have been washed out, making it harder to deliver coffee to markets. In addition, the excess rain has made coffee plants more susceptible to a disease called coffee rust, further lowering production of coffee throughout Central America.
Weather and Climate Change
Throughout the world, one of the biggest challenges facing coffee farmers is climate change. Coffee needs a predictable wet and dry season and is not able to tolerate extreme changes in temperature. If rains come too early, trees blossom too soon. If the rain comes too late, it can destroy the ripe coffee cherries before they can be harvested. In some years, farmers have lost up to a third of their crops, simply because the rainy season has come too soon. While changes in weather have always had an impact, the fluctuations are now more frequent and extreme.
The resulting unpredictability makes business planning very difficult, and producers often struggle to stay in business.
Small Farmers vs. Coffee Plantations
For small-scale farmers, such as the majority of producers in Columbia, it is impossible to reach the economies of scale enjoyed by the larger plantations in Brazil and Vietnam. Since it takes years for a coffee plant to produce coffee beans, farmers cannot quickly respond to changes in price and demand. The volatile commodity price driven by coffee buyers, changing weather patterns, and spreading coffee rust, all work against the small coffee farmers who grow the highest quality Arabica beans. Large scale producers in Brazil and Vietnam are growing Robusta beans, which are lower quality.
Why Fair Trade?
For coffee lovers, it is crucial that the quality and variety of coffee be protected. Fair trade does this in an important way by providing price protections to farmers and helping them invest in new techniques to adjust to climate change and the coffee rust blight. When you buy fair trade coffee, you are helping to protect the future of the beverage we love!