Coffee’s Goldilocks Problem

Coffee is a beverage with deeply complex character and history. Unfortunately, you can’t find much about coffee’s story in North America. The continent is the recipient of most of the world’s coffee but the producer of almost none. Only one U.S. state grows coffee (Hawaii) and that’s because of its unique geography. Everywhere else is inhospitable to the fickle bean.

So last month, we traveled south to see coffee’s complexities. A drought in Brazil earlier this year led to dramatically lower supply and higher prices on the global coffee exchange worldwide, where coffee is sold as a commodity. In Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais, we met farmers and producers. We visited packaging plants and a quality testing lab. We tried to understand coffee’s not-too-hot-or-too-cold demands in hopes of understanding its future. And not just its future, but the future of other crops like it, too—foods at risk of massive disruption as Earth’s climate changes.

While we were sampling Brazil’s many coffee varieties and riding in truck beds through coffee fields, another shoe dropped.

Further north in Central America, coffee has the opposite problem as drought: too much rain. Heavy rainfall has helped spread a debilitating fungus known as rust, or roya in Spanish, that kills trees and spreads quickly. This week, we looked at how damaging the problem can be. Some farmers and development organizations think the fungus may kill 40 percent of Central America’s coffee, further deflating the market. You can learn about that story here.

Despite all the threats to coffee—and they’re likely to be compound with more strange and hard-to-predict weather events—the ironic reality is that the bean isn’t in danger of going out of style. Coffee’s story is one of vulnerability and risk, but also one of innovation and ingenuity. The problems in both Brazil (too little water) and Central America (too much) are being solved by geneticists at work to make better seeds to withstand both drought and invasive fungus.

Can coffee persevere? The growers, buyers, and consumers who know best don’t have much doubt. Luis Fernando Samper, a coffee marketer with the National Federation of Coffee Growers in Colombia, likens coffee to the fictional boxer Rocky Balboa. While the crop is fighting its current bout, there’s wide acknowledgement that coffee, like Rocky, will have many sequels. The only unknown is how often it’ll win.