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World Coffee Conference – New twists at a global meeting of coffee and government leaders

Demand has been increasing faster than supply for a number of years now. This is a typical cycle after a disastrous and widely felt historic low. But it seems that this may not be an ordinary cycle and most producers may not be able to recover to meet the rising demand as new and powerful challenges emerge.

I must admit that I came to World Coffee Conference really expecting a mind numbing display of political posturing especially given the presence of heads of state at the event held this year in Guatemala at end of February. I was pleasantly surprised. I saw active engagement with new ideas and more discussions of challenging themes than ever before. Besides policy and markets, there were broad discussions on labor, soils, gender, climate change, and more. For the first time, the discussion of sustainability, in its various forms, was really front and center – and not a year too soon.  “Bravo” to the ICO[1] and to Anacafe’s[2] excellent organization!

Each speaker had less than 20 minutes to address his peers. Naturally, I did not get to express some of my concerns about the future of coffee, so please allow me to share them with you now.

I am frankly worried; worried about the future of coffee as not only a delightful sensorial pleasure and an important cultural feature but most importantly as an immensely valuable form of income for millions. In a number of countries, coffee is so important for the wellbeing of a large proportion of farm families that anyone would be hard pressed to find a replacement should it disappear.[3] And that is exactly what may happen.

Farmers will likely be facing a combination of daunting new challenges very soon, and some are already confronting them. We need only look to Colombia, arguably the world’s most organized producer country, where some historically unique weather patterns have so disrupted production that even the Fondo Nacional de Café and the powerful Federation (representing more than 500,000 farmers) have been powerless to improve the precipitous drop in production.

The first of these challenges is higher labor costs due in part to the ageing population and in part to the smaller workforce as internal and external migration impacts a number of producer countries from Kenya to Indonesia to Central America. The second is higher energy costs that will negatively affect transportation and, of course, fertilizers since many non-organic fertilizers require considerable energy and fluctuate with the cost of petroleum. The third is increasing climate risks as more frequent and more disruptive weather patterns combine with an apparently inexorable warming trend[4] that is not only affecting current production in a number of countries but likely to shift the areas of production to higher and more difficult terrains. The fourth challenge – as if all that wasn’t enough – is the likelihood of higher than historic levels of market volatility due in part to greater speculation but also to a different type of speculator that can dislodge market movements from their relationship to the fundamentals of supply, demand, exchange rates, etc.

While many do expect demand for coffee to grow, I am betting that in the coming years the supply will be far more chaotic and uncertain. This will be most serious for producers, especially those millions living at the margins. For years many have been discussing sustainability only as a way to differentiate and earn a greater income. However, the wiser pundits in the industry are seeing the dark side of what is coming and sustainability approaches may well become key tools for ensuring basic livelihoods and a measure of continuity for many of the producers and enterprises of the coffee industry.


[1] International Coffee Organization is an intergovernmental agency mandated to address the sector’s common and global issues.

[2] Guatemala’s National Coffee Association

[3] Deeper analysis is available in “Coffee Markets: New Paradigms in Global Supply and Demand”

[4] In case you are wondering, for every scientist contending the data on global warming, there seem to be a hundred confirming it. The only real questions left are whether humans caused it and what to do about it.

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  1. Wow, that post really opened my eyes.
    I hope a solution is found as I couldn’t imagine not having my daily hit of fresh coffee.
    Thanks for sharing and many thanks,