Imagine the day coffee shops around the country place a ‘closed indefinitely’ sign on their shop door. Imagine the end of the World Barista Championship when there’s no longer any quality coffee to showcase, or replacing your morning coffee with a green smoothie.
The idea of a world without coffee is incomprehensible to many, but possible, with studies already predicting that by 2050 demand will double while suitable land for coffee production will be half of what it is today.
With no investment, 2040 will mark the fall of production, as well as an inevitable rise in retail prices that will halt or reverse the year-on-year consumption growth the industry has enjoyed.
Rather than watching the situation demise, there is something we can do, contrary to thinking that the greater issues of climate change and disease threatening the industry are “too big and complex” to be our problem, when they are.
Everyone can play a role in helping secure the industry’s future by eliminating the knowledge and technology gap that exists for producers. World Coffee Research (WCR), a non-profit research institute conducting cutting-edge scientific research, is encouraging roasters and green bean importers to join its Checkoff Program and donate a small amount per pound or kilo of green beans purchased towards WCR’s continued research efforts.
“There’s a lot of great people in the industry doing great sustainability work, but you have to evaluate that and ask yourself: ‘How much of that includes research and development?’ Roasters and cafés are confronted with so many different charities and organisations to support, but WCR is taking a leap of faith with some of its projects in the hope that there will be funds to cover them,” says Greg Meenahan, Partnership Director of WCR.
“Coffee R&D isn’t a sustainability project with a beginning, middle, and an end. It doesn’t go away. It’s a new capacity the industry has decided it needs in order to ensure the economic and environmental sustainability of producers and the foundation of the entire coffee value chain.”
The importance of agricultural research was one of the core topics of discussion when Sydney-based roaster Single O presented its No Death to Coffee industry talk in October 2018.
“We recognise that the future of coffee is in all of our hands, and
are calling on Australian roasters and importers to do their part to fund the critical research and development needed for coffee and farmers alike by signing up to the WCR Checkoff Program,” says Single O Director of Coffee, Wendy De Jong, an original founding member of WCR.
Single O, like many other coffee companies around the world, are contributing to the Checkoff Program by paying a few cents per kilo of green beans roasted every quarter directly to WCR.
“I think the international coffee community is quite aware and concerned with the challenges facing coffee producers, but the funding and expertise needed to tackle these issues is outside the scope of just one company. I’d like to see Australia do its part and step in with the other international coffee companies donating to the WCR Checkoff Program. We are a few years behind,” Wendy says.
“We believe sustainability in coffee needs a multifaceted approach, and plant science is something that has been long overlooked in coffee compared to other global supply crops.”
Coffee is said to be one of the most under-researched and under-innovated crops in the world. Compared to coffee’s 52 varieties, watermelon has 675, wine has more than 1000, and avocado has 129.
“There is so much innovation in coffee brewing equipment, for example, trying to squeeze levels of perceived quality at the extraction level, and much of it seems to be just bells and whistles. I think the real measurable advances in quality in coffee in the next few years will be plant based, thanks to WCR and the coffee community supporting this vital work,” Wendy says.
In 2018, Single O became the first roaster to import a full container of future-friendly coffees to Australia. The three new climate-resilient coffees included Centroamericano, Marsellesa, and Starmaya, which WCR describes as “a glimpse into a much brighter future for the coffee plant”. These coffees were featured as single origins and in three blends across Single O’s cafés and wholesale family.
Southern Cross University (SCU) is also contributing to the development of climate-resilient coffee by participating in WCR’s International Multilocation Variety Trial, an effort to facilitate the global exchange of the world’s best coffee varieties.
The trial has brought 35 of the world’s best Arabica varieties to 23 countries for rigorous testing and evaluation to see how the plants perform in different climates. The successful varieties and findings from the trial will be shared with coffee producers and farmers around the world.
To date, Graham King and his team at SCU, are working with almost 1000 plants and testing 20 different coffee varieties. Already, some of the first climate-resilient coffee trees have been planted in Australian soil at the Tropical Fruit Research Station in Alstonville, northern New South Wales.
WCR’s Greg Meenahan says this kind of research and development is vital to securing coffee’s future.
“If nothing is done, more than half of the world’s suitable coffee land will be pushed into unsuitability due to climate change. Without research and development, the coffee sector will need up to 180 million more bags of coffee in 2050 than we are likely to have,” he says.
Research is a long-term commitment. With many projects spanning anywhere from five to 10 years in length, Greg says it’s important for the industry to understand that without adequate funding, research will stumble.
“Today, no matter how earnestly the coffee industry is trying to save coffee, they can’t do it with the toolkit they have,” Greg says.
“If you don’t have enough agronomists and have to put off taking care of the plants or measurements, you could end up coming back to a test plot filled with weeds and plantlets that didn’t survive, which compromises the accuracy of the science. The industry needs an automatic, steady, and fair way to contribute to this pre-competitive effort, and doing this with transparency is vital.”
In order for WCR to continue its devotion to the livelihoods of producers, and create a toolbox of coffee varieties with dependable performance, disease resistance, and high yields, funding needs to be economically sustainable. It also needs to be profitable for producers and attractive to the next generation.
“You’ve got people getting rid of plastic straws at one end, and at the other, you’ve got organisations helping farmers to keep their rivers safe by installing bioswales to filter the wastewater produced by a wet mill,” Greg says. “Both of those efforts are super important, but neither strategy deals with the economic sustainability of producers. If coffee farming isn’t profitable in a region, it will stop being grown there. You don’t need a crystal ball to predict that. Once those supply chains wither and die, they often don’t come back. We see that now in El Salvador.”
That’s why Meenahan says WCR’s “penny per pound” idea provides an element of fairness, where a contribution to WCR is based fundamentally on the volume of coffee the supporting company is using. They pay into it at the same rate they’re taking advantage of it. A contribution can be anywhere from half a cent up to 10 cents or 20 cents per pound or kilogram of green coffee purchased from participating suppliers to help fund future innovation in coffee agriculture. This includes WCR’s five-year Global Coffee Monitoring Program, estimated to cost about US$18 million, which will produce unprecedented data on how to improve farm profitability for the industry.
“[Through the Checkoff Program] an entrepreneurial roaster working out of their garage in the Netherlands doing 2000 pounds per year who wants to contribute to WCR can step up to the plate and contribute five to 10 cents per pound,” Greg says.
“You can’t have one roaster contributing US$5000 a year and another of equal size contributing US$50,000 a year. The market needs to benchmark the donation. We each have to make an appropriate gift for our association based on volume.”
The program works through participating suppliers, who keep track of coffee sales to roasters, adding however many pennies per pound/kilo the roaster has indicated to the green supplier. The contribution is included as a cost of doing business on the roaster’s invoice, similar to docking costs, brokerage fees, or warehousing costs. The supplier then collects funds and disperses them to WCR four times a year. Software program Eximware, a cloud-based commodity management business, even integrates the Checkoff functionality into its system automatically.
To date, 44 importers have pledged to embed the Checkoff Program into their administration system.
About 70 roasters have signed up as well, including Single O in Australia, and one of the largest global contributors, Dunkin’. It announced a five-year agreement that will see a percentage of sales from every pound of its Original Blend coffee beans sold to franchisees go towards WCR.
Campos Coffee CEO and Founder Will Young says WCR’s Checkoff Program is the next necessary step for the industry.
“This is so important and it affects all of us in specialty coffee,” Will says. “So much so, that I see a need for the Australian Specialty Coffee Association (ASCA) to take the lead on driving the fundraising and communicating the message. Having a neutral, collective body as the conduit between WCR and the specialty coffee community will help attract all roasters/baristas and café operators to the cause.”
Like many roasters, Campos Coffee already commits to many long-term social projects to help protect the future of specialty coffee. In Kenya, it invests in heavily subsidising the cost of manure to its coffee farmers to ensure coffee plants gain the necessary organic matter to reverse entropy and rebuild a significant area of soil over the next couple of decades. While this is where the majority of Campos Coffee’s investments are going, Will says he would “jump” at the opportunity if ASCA, Australia’s leading industry body, were to invest in the WCR Checkoff Program through fundraising initiatives.
“It would unite our community around a cause that is so vital to the future of specialty coffee that we need to tackle it as one,” Will says. “I think we need a call to the whole industry. Only one or two roasters investing in big change is not enough.”
WCR agrees. With more companies signing up to the Checkoff Program, WCR urges roasters and importers to question how they can make a difference. All it takes is a small donation for a big investment, because as WCR quite rightly puts it, if we lose producers and the supply of coffee, “we lose the game, and the future of the industry”.
The article appears in the February edition of BeanScene Magazine. Subscribe here.
For more information, visit www.worldcoffeeresearch.org/ donate/checkoff