OPINION: A global coffee shortage is on the horizon, and consumers must be the first to act

A latte with cinnamon on top.
Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 argues that we must have a more sustainable approach to coffee consumption that considers the environmental and economic factors behind the industry. (Emma Jensen • The Student Life)

I drink coffee pretty much every day, and it seems I am in good company. In a 2018 study commissioned by the National Coffee Association, 64 percent of adult Americans polled had a cup of coffee the previous day.

Coffee’s constancy in my day-to-day routine has led me to think of it as a nearly unlimited resource. If I run out at home, there’s always more at the grocery stpolled are daily coffee drinkersore or my local coffee shop. 

But this attitude of abundance ignores a critically important fact: The coffee industry is in turmoil in ways we as consumers do not see. A genuine global coffee shortage is not out of the question. 

Currently, the coffee industry is under attack from all sides with the devastating effects of climate change on growing regions and the lack of a large-scale international trade agreement as the most pressing issues. While the negative effects will be felt most heavily by the coffee growers themselves, the broader effects promise to present global challenges. 

As these troubling factors converge, the drink so many of us enjoy without a second thought is at risk of becoming shockingly scarce — from an everyday drink to an occasional luxury.

While large-scale solutions may hold the lasting answers, these are almost entirely out of our control, especially in the short term. Addressing this issue today will mean examining our own relationship with coffee as consumers. The coffee we choose to buy, and where we buy it from, has the potential to both help small coffee growers today and hopefully support the long-term sustainability of the industry. 

The coffee plant is delicate and demanding. While there are different species of coffee, some of which are more resilient than others, the plant generally needs a sunny season, a healthy amount of rain and a limited temperature range, as well as warm days and cool nights. All of these factors significantly limit the possible growing regions, with mountainous regions of tropical countries typically being the most successful. 

The effects of climate change promise to make the range of possible growing regions alarmingly smaller. By 2050, almost half of the coffee growing regions of the world will become inhospitable for the crop. 

However, climate change is not the only culprit when it comes to this shortage. 

The International Coffee Agreement, which once stabilized the price of coffee, dissolved in 1989, leaving millions of small coffee growers — who make up about 60 percent of the total market — in a precarious situation. 

In response to the trade agreement’s collapse, large coffee plantations in countries like Brazil and Vietnam significantly increased their production in an attempt to seize a larger share of the industry. But as global production increased, prices plummeted, driving smaller farmers out of the family business that has sustained them for generations. 

As coffee stops being profitable, these small coffee growers are being forced to abandon coffee and transition to other more stable markets. If a majority of small coffee growers make the transition, the rest of the market will likely not be able to sustain the growing international demand. 

Unbeknownst to me, all of this uncertainty culminates in the coffee I drink day-to-day.  

A new international trade agreement and action against climate change are the large-scale answers. However, this should neither inspire apathy within us as consumers, nor stop us from engaging with the issue. 

To preserve the coffee industry of the future, we have to think of our coffee with a more holistic view that considers the surprisingly complicated environmental and economic processes that lie behind it. The solution is not to stop buying coffee, but to be more mindful of what coffee we buy. 

Outside of the broad, long-term solutions, buying coffee ethically is perhaps the best thing we can do as consumers. By treating coffee as the potentially limited resource it could become if current trends continue, we can take a step towards larger scale change. And, in the process, hopefully mitigate some of the worst effects, especially on coffee growers, by creating a more sustainable relationship with our morning cup of coffee. 

Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 lives in Carlsbad, CA but grew up in Florence, Italy. He is an avid reader and intends on majoring in international political economy with a minor in cognitive science. 

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