Coffee and climate


The climate emergency is here, and for farmers it’s more real than anyone.

While many activists in the UK and Europe are taking to the streets calling for action, farmers around the world are out there facing the growing challenges that an unpredictable climate brings. Erratic and unpredictable weather, including changes in temperatures, water shortages and even landslides, make it almost impossible to farm in the same way that farmers have done for hundreds of years.

In Peru, a country renowned for growing high quality coffee, it’s the same story for many farmers. In the north, where high altitudes used to be perfect for growing the delicate Arabica coffee beans favoured for their flavour, climate change has made crops vulnerable to disease. Some farmers now must plant their coffee bushes higher up the mountain where it is cool enough to produce a healthy crop because they won’t grow lower down.

The market price for coffee, at its lowest in 15 years, is putting further pressure on farmers globally (there are 125 million people dependent on the crop worldwide). When they lose a harvest to disease or get poor returns for their beans, farmers have few savings to fall back on and they rely on savings or are forced to take out loans. In many cases there is not enough coffee to earn the money needed to feed their families or send their children to school.

Fairtrade was launched in the UK as a result of the coffee crisis back in the 1990s

Fairtrade was launched in the UK as a result of the coffee crisis back in the 1990s with the key concept of paying higher prices to farmers for their certified products. Fairtrade is celebrating 25 years of the mark this autumn and now works with over 1.6 million farmers, providing a vital safety net, but many still suffer from historically low prices once again.

Sefelmira is not a member of a Fairtrade cooperative. She works to help her neighbours in North-Eastern Peru to bring in their coffee harvest, and sews some purses and bags to sell, because she cannot earn enough to feed her two daughters from her own small plot of coffee. She says: “When there is not enough to buy anything, one feels there is no way to find the money needed. [There] are many difficulties because the coffee is at a very low price.”

Globally, demand for quality coffee is growing and consumers are willing to pay around $3 for a tall black or a flat white. Yet the global price of coffee is again rock bottom. It’s currently averaging around $1 per pound of coffee – barely enough to cover farmers’ production costs. According to a recent report from exporter Volcafe, nearly 61%of producers are selling their coffee at such prices. Without enough money to look after your own family, how can you ever expect to be able to adapt to changing weather, disease-ridden crops and a lack of rainfall?

Still, some have hope for the future. Take Juan Justo, the representative from his village in the 5,000-member cooperative Norandino in Peru, which supplies coffee to Cafédirect in the UK. Juan doesn’t have enough water available for his coffee plants and so they are simply not strong enough to fight the diseases that come with climate change. But with Fairtrade he is able to access training and loans to help recover from previous losses and he is leading a project to provide his community with organic fertilizer, which will help add vital nutrients to the soil and give the plants a better chance to flourish.

In a neighbouring area, the Guererro family are benefiting from youngest son Hugo’s experimentation in grafting coffee plants together, he is using his training as an agronomist to create a coffee plant that has the strength of the Robusta variety and still the high quality Arabica flowers. He is positive for the future: “I think it will always be possible [to farm here] as long as we are conscientious in how we do things. If a farmer uses agricultural poisons, I think it would become impossible. But I think if we look at forests, at how they function, and apply that to our crops, then I would not be worried.”

The global price of coffee is again rock bottom

Being part of a Fairtrade cooperative for 25 years, this family has seen the change first-hand. All five children were able to go to further education and two have returned to work within the cooperative. Hugo is working side by side with his 72-year-old father on the farm, as well as sharing his knowledge with other farmers in his area.

“Everything I learn here, I disseminate all over the province in some way. If what I do is successful, then other farmers can have access to that type of product, which they themselves could even make.”

There is no straightforward way to deal with the challenges that are already present. Fairtrade seeks to empower those who are facing the immediate problems. Creating a stable base through a Minimum Price, farmers and their cooperatives can focus on sharing knowledge, looking for new techniques and investing for the future.

Watch the video the Fairtrade Foundation released to celebrate 25 years of the Mark here:

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