Climate change is often discussed as something which pertains to the distant future – as something that will radically alter the lives of “our kids’ grandkids” – but the global coffee shortage proves that climate change threatens even the mundane daily rituals many of us take for granted in North America. For the past three years, coffee consumption has outstripped production. Many do not realize there is a shortage, nor feel impacted by it, because the International Coffee Organization (ICO) has been using their emergency reserve of stockpiled resources. But if the destructive effects of climate change are not circumvented in key production regions, “half of the world’s area deemed suitable for growing coffee will be lost by 2050,” leading those in the West to find an alternate source of morning caffeine. For those in the global South – where coffee is the second most valuable export – however, the shortage has impoverished many farmers.
The media is quick to cite the “warming world” and “extreme weather” as the sources of such scarcity. However, climate change is political; without analyzing the responsibility power dynamics in creating and perpetuating global warming, one cannot create change that won’t further engrain the cause of climate change in the first place. Africa’s coffee industry, in particular, has taken major blows due to the environmental exploitation of Western nations. In 1980, the toxic combination of global capitalism and IMF Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) allowed Western countries to extract resources from African countries. The result was damaging both environmentally and economically: the implementation of cash-crop monoculture has created irreversible damage to many ecosystems; and the devaluation of coffee beans after SAPs impoverished many farmers, thus not allowing the industry to expand. Though climate change is the cause of many present-day problems, it is also an effect – an effect of exploitative economic maneuvers.
“People drink more than 2.25 billion cups of coffee each and every day,” a Business Insider report shows. This current rate of consumption has also doubled in the last 35 years. Though coffee is mainly consumed in “industrialized countries,” most of the 25 million farmers whom produce it live in the global South, spanning South America, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa. However, climate change has “expos[ed] to more pests and diseases,” decreasing the quality and quantity of coffee as a result.
In 2015, the issue of coffee scarcity was brought to the media’s attention after Brazil and other regions faced prolonged drought; numerous articles and scientific studies emerged that year. However, those in the global south felt the impact much sooner. In Africa, neoliberal interventionism in the 1980s helped create the conditions for long-term environmental destruction — while allowing Western countries short-term access into resource dense areas for low prices.
In Africa, coffee has been a source of income for centuries. Sam Massa, a Ugandan coffee farmer, told National Geographic that his current trees were “planted here by his grandfather more than 100 years ago.” Thus, when African nations gained their independence from colonial powers - 17 of them did so in 1960 - coffee played a key role as these countries emerged into the newly globalizing economy. For Rwanda, coffee composed “eighty percent of the state’s export earnings” — and for its neighbor, Burundi, that percent was ninety-three. The period between 1960 and 1980 saw tremendous economic growth in many African economies: “up to 1975, the African performance was not much worse than that of the world average and better than that of South Asia and even of the wealthiest among First World regions,” political scholar Giovanni Arrighi said. This success took a turn, however, in the 1980s. External economic shocks - such as the OPEC oil crisis - as well as the internal problems, created and left by colonialism, led to economic recession in many countries – which the IMF aimed to rectify through structural adjustment policies (SAPs).
For African countries to receive loans from the IMF, they were required to follow controversial policy conditions to create export-led growth to “attract foreign direct investment.” Countries were thus advised to focus on their most successful commodity, which, in many cases, was coffee. As a result, coffee flooded the international market, creating a “loss of competitiveness of domestic producers and a fall in industrial production.” While Western countries got access to cheaper commodities in 1986, Rwanda lost “nearly two thirds of its revenue generated by coffee”; their GDP then fell by nearly 30 percent.
Structural adjustment policies also had a monumental long-term environmental impact. By focusing on one cash crop, these countries became monoculture economies. Ecosystems require diversity to thrive, but monoculture farming eliminates biological controls, which then requires the use of synthetic herbicides and fertilizers to protect the crops. As organisms become resistant to these chemicals, more are produced — contributing to long-term groundwater pollution and soil degradation due to their overuse.
The global South immediately felt the economic impact of these policies — and are now feeling the environmental impact. However, Western countries are only now starting to feel the long-term impact. But the only way to successfully combat climate change in the long-term is to recognize the disproportionate power dynamics in international trade.
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