The Futurian
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The Futurian

The Death of Coffee?

THE FUTURIAN #4

At about 2AM on the seventeenth of November 2029 Daniel Jacobs took a coffee break that nearly destroyed the global coffee industry.

The facility Daniel was working in, the Millennium building, home of the Millennium Seed Bank Project, had a fire alarm system, but it was old and had been deactivated while contractors worked on installing a new one. In the meantime a 24/7 fire watch was in place, with security guards like Daniel patrolling the halls and raising the alarm should a fire occur.

The coffee industry worldwide had been experiencing difficulties already. Successive years of poor harvests had driven the wholesale price of coffee up and the consensus amongst professional barista’s was that the overall quality of the beans that had been harvested was noticeably lower. Rising temperatures and increasing water stress meant that what were originally written-off as just bad years were, by the mid 2020s, becoming the norm.

The vending machine in the main building was out of coffee, forcing David to seek a late night caffeine hit from a contractors portacabin outside. The delay was enough for the wiring fault on an HVAC unit to ignite exposed combustibles in a wall void and for the resulting fire to flood much of the subterranean storage facility with smoke. By the time the Sussex Fire and Rescue service arrived the fire had spread to several floors of the facility and the thick smoke made locating and extinguishing the fire a lengthy task. Later analysis would suggest that over 200 entries had to be made by crews using breathing apparatus and the overall process of extinguishing the fire took more than two days.

Other agricultural sectors had also been facing increasing difficulties from climate shifts and their responses fell into broadly two categories; relocate or breed tougher crops. Relocation proved not only a viable but in some cases a relatively cheap option. Land that once had produced world-class wines was now being sold at knock-down prices to olive farmers, whereas the wheat and barley of northern Europe now made way for the corduroy stripes of vineyards. However this approach had several barriers to implementation. First was the need to grow crops in regions that had few skilled workers used to handling them. Places like the European Union, where skilled agricultural workers could cross borders with relative ease, were best able to embrace this shifting approach to food production whereas some other regions were ultimately forced through political necessity to make allowances for agricultural migration and, in some cases, offer amnesties for the tens of thousands of skilled workers who had quickly come to underpin many nations’ food security.

Coffee production, however, could not be easily relocated. Coffee beans require a difficult combination not just of temperature and moisture, but also a strong temperature swing between night and day. This makes the mountainous slopes of several regions in the tropics ideal for coffee growing, but also radically limits the places worldwide that readily lend themselves to coffee production. Coffee farmers responded initially by growing beans at higher altitudes to keep the plants cool enough to thrive but this inevitably meant trying to grow on less and less land. More aggressive interventions such as advanced irrigation or large-scale temperature controlled growing facilities were far beyond the reach of most coffee farmers. The coffee industry remains an anomaly in that about three quarters of the beans grown worldwide are done so by small independent farms rather than large companies or governments. For most of these farmers the pressing weight of financial hardship increasingly meant that it made more sense to grow bananas and other crops on the hillsides that were once the heart of global coffee growing.

Seed storage uses low temperatures to reduce latent metabolic processes to a crawl. If seeds are maintained in low temperature light free environments they can remain dormant almost indefinitely. However, interruptions to this long cool sleep can render seeds unviable even without exposure to the heat and acidic fumes of an electrical fire. The fire in the Millennium Seed Bank was ultimately controlled and most of the samples therein remained suitable for ongoing storage, but the fire and smoke damage had a disproportionately large impact on the project’s hundreds of varieties of wild coffee seeds.

Coffee is, occasionally (and inaccurately) described as the world’s second most heavily traded commodity after oil. Years of declining output had driven considerable innovation in some parts of the value chain with food giants making some progress in normalising coffee-like substances for use in cooking, in instant “coffees” and, increasingly, in the “coffee” available in lower-end cafes and restaurants. Nevertheless a significant demand for coffee, even at increasingly unattainable prices, persisted. Instead of dozens of uniform bags with vague descriptions of origins, coffee enthusiasts and suppliers began selling hundred gram pouches of beans from individual coffee estates. One coffee influencer claimed to be able to tell whether a cup had been brewed using beans from the east or the west side of a particular farm.

Eventually the market was there to justify the expense of trying to generate new, hardier strains of coffee plants that could tolerate the now prevalent hotter and drier conditions throughout the world’s coffee belt. Except that the world’s largest collection of wild coffee species had just suffered a major fire destroying more than 80% of the known specimens. Specimens without which coffee as a plant species was now reduced to an alarmingly narrow genetic cul-de-sac of plants that were all either too difficult to grow at scale or produced inferior fruit.

Fortunately, the Millennium Seed Bank was not the only such storage facility worldwide. Although smaller, similar facilities had been established in Svalbard and Australia and these helped fill some of the genetic gaps needed to enable the breeds of coffee we enjoy today. A larger part of the equation, however, came from the cooperation of the Ethiopian government. Ethiopia possesses a far greater variety of coffee plants than most other countries and, following the Millennium Seed fire was able to offer something that the seed vaults could not, an abundance of wild-growing coffee species that, through a myriad of international agreements, sired new strains that returned one of the world’s most famous cash crops to the heart of numerous economies of the global south.

© Guy Garrud 2021

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Charlie Garrud

Specialist in strategic foresight, horizon scanning and analysing emerging trends in technology, society and geopolitics.