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How coffee growers can adapt to a precipitous industry: Q&A with Dean’s Beans founder Dean Cycon

Dean Cycon

  • Climate change is making traditional coffee-growing areas in the tropics less suitable for the crop, forcing farmers to look for new land at higher elevations and higher latitudes.
  • Scientists are trying to tackle the problem by developing climate-resistant coffee plants, but solutions already exist from arid regions in Africa that can be adapted by farmers in Latin America.
  • “This is something the scientific community is completely ignoring,” says Dean Cycon, founder of Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee and a longtime advocate of social justice for the millions of coffee farmers in the global south.
  • In an interview with Mongabay, Cycon offers his unique insights into one of the world’s favorite beverages, the challenges of climate change, the plight of tropical farmers, and the solutions he sees as still within reach.

Dean Cycon spoke recently to students at Harvard Business School. A student asked him what his profit margin was at Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee, a company he founded in 1993 in western Massachusetts using beans grown by small-scale farmers around the world.

“Enough,” Cycon said. It was an unusually succinct answer for someone who prefers long, involved responses to questions he regularly fields regarding what he’s learned in more than four decades of working to improve the plight of the working poor in rural communities throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Cycon started some 45 years ago as an environmental attorney working in indigenous communities. He eventually settled on coffee as a means of promoting social justice, environmental protection and improved health care and water quality. He did this by paying well above the often low, open-market price for coffee paid by large retailers. This enabled his suppliers to earn a living, farm more sustainably on less land, and thus reduce the pressure to deforest in order to grow a larger crop.

Yet in a world where 400 billion cups of coffee are consumed annually, climate change in the tropics is dramatically impacting how and where coffee can be grown. One unintended, but increasingly common, climate impact is mass migration. Farmers paid too little for a crop that’s become difficult to grow are flooding north, fueling the immigration crisis playing out on the southern border of the United States.

In a Mongabay interview, Cycon offered his unique insights into one of the world’s favorite beverages, the challenges of climate change, the plight of tropical farmers, and the solutions he sees as still within reach.

Mongabay: How has climate change, with its steadily warming temperatures, affected how coffee is grown around the world?

Dean Cycon: Globally, coffee is grown in about 85 countries about 35 degrees north and south of the equator, between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. One immediate impact of climate change is that that band is widening. For the first time in history, coffee is being grown in Southern California. That’s shocking.

Is that something to be concerned about?

It’s not a good or bad thing. It’s just the migration of crops as we adapt to climate change. As with every plant, coffee has its own range of temperatures, its own specific need for rainfall at a specific time. Climate change is disrupting the primary factors that allow coffee to grow as a plant as we know it.

So scientists are making the rush to hybridize plants to adapt into different climate conditions. But that comes at the cost of many things. The first thing is quality. Scientists are less interested in quality than hardiness. And so a lot of hybrids coming out are not suitable for good coffee. It’s like a crabapple compared to a McIntosh. And governments are funding the hell out of that kind of research, and government agencies are pushing for that kind of planting.

Many people hearing that might think that’s a good thing, that scientists are trying to figure out how to adapt a popular consumer good so that it can thrive in changing climates. You don’t see it the same way.

Coffee may be a commodity, but the people who grow it are not. In most of the places I work around the world, coffee is the sole income crop to farmers, even those who try to diversify and grow other things. Because coffee is grown in distant mountains, not in the middle of cities, they really don’t have access to markets other than what they can grow and trade locally. If you take away the cash crop, it changes the economics of life in villages all around the world. And remember, most of the world’s coffee — 60% or more — is grown by small-scale farmers. The rest is grown on large plantations.

Aerial view of shade-grown coffee in Costa Rica. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

This comes back to the social justice element that has driven much of your career.

Yes, it does. At the end of the day, none of these issues we’re talking about — healthy ecosystems, clean water, poverty — exist in a vacuum. They are all interrelated. So we can’t tease out one aspect of this with a scientific fix, which is what we usually try to do. Whether it’s COVID-19 or climate change or coffee, we can’t tease out one element of this — let’s make the plants hardier and move them somewhere else — and not have a range of dramatic impacts.

China is now a big place for new crops of coffee. Big coffee purchasers are invested heavily in growing coffee in China. OK, that’s a possibility of a new area for growing. Poor farmers there will have an opportunity for income. But it comes at the expense of 25 million coffee-growing families all around the world, and poverty in those regions is always one crop failure away.

Let’s talk specifically about how climate change in the tropics, where virtually all of the world’s coffee is still grown, is being affected by climate change.

There’s a trophic cascade. And it starts with the changing temperatures. Coffee thrives in a narrow temperature band. If you move up 1 degree or 2 degrees, the plant can’t survive. Because of the heat, the plant itself is seeking a cooler climate, and farmers are planting higher and higher upslope where it’s cooler. The higher up you get, the less land there is, the more you may have to deforest, the more chemicals you may need to use, and the more species habitats are disrupted.

What else?

Rainfall. Rainfall patterns are already seriously disrupted all over the tropics. Rain no longer reliably comes at the right time or in the right quantities. There might be a one-month delay in the rainy season, which means that the flowers that have to develop for the bean to come, those flowers are not developing. Instead, they are withering and falling off. Which means no coffee beans. Or the rain comes, and it’s not the typical quarter-inch a day, but rather a deluge that leads to erosion and landslides. Plants are not developing properly because of too much water.

Disease is a factor, too, isn’t it?

Yes. The diseases attacking coffee are much stronger very recently than they’ve ever been. The major disease is a wind-blown fungus called la roya — the rust. We’ve had major outbreaks that wiped out 30 to 40% of all coffee in Mexico, Colombia and northern Peru a few years ago. If a plant gets la roya, it can’t be trimmed off. You need to pull it out of the ground and burn it. You lose that plant. Or you can lose an entire crop. When you replant, it takes about five years before that plant is producing beans you can sell. Farmers hardest hit by rust lose their income for that period of time, and it’s devastating.

Coffee plants affected by climate change. Image courtesy of Dean’s Beans.

We’re not going to stop climate change, so what are the opportunities for farmers in these rural communities in the tropics to adapt their coffee-growing strategies?

There are parts of the world where drylands coffee are the norm. Ethiopia. Yemen. Kenya. They already use different techniques to make sure the soil stays moist during a drought. There are adaptation techniques that could benefit farmers, and we try to cross-educate between different regions of the world so that the farmers in Latin America can learn from farmers in Africa regarding crop protection in a hotter environment. These techniques are simply drip irrigation and heavy mulching to prevent evaporation and pruning that allows more circulation of air, which helps the plants.

So you’re spreading this knowledge as parts of Latin America are starting to look more like parts of Africa?

Exactly. But this is something the scientific community is completely ignoring.

Why?

They are looking for technological fixes. But here’s a counterpoint: in Nicaragua, when the rust hit really badly, we were talking with farmers in different co-ops and we found a small group of farmers up on this one ridge, and they said they have a plant that was unaffected (by rust). The coffee species is called Indio — the original coffee plant in that region that only grows in one area. It’s a high-quality bean. Indio – if people would take it and replant it elsewhere, it would solve the problem of trying to scientifically modify crops elsewhere because you already have a species that is rust-proof.

Then, in another part of Guatemala, they were hybridizing a Robusta base (a coffee bean of lower quality) and grafting in Arabica branches (Arabica is the highest-quality bean). Robusta plants are much more resistant to heat and rust than Arabica. And it’s working, but at a small scale. There is no real emphasis on this kind of widespread cross-education between farmers in different countries or different parts of the world. But it would go a lot further than spending $10 million in a lab where solutions are production-based rather than community-based.

A coffee plant in Peru. Image courtesy of Dean’s Beans.

In a previous interview with Mongabay, you spoke about the potential for adaptability in coffee growing through agroforestry — literally planting coffee plants in forests, between the trees. Is shade-grown coffee and agroforestry part of the way that smaller communities, smaller growers, can adapt to rising temperatures?

Yes. The soil protective mechanisms in agroforestry, the multi-storied shade in agroforestry, all serve to create a more conducive environment for that plant to make it more resistant to rising temperatures. On the rainfall side, you have shade in the hottest part of the day when the rain isn’t coming, and allow soil adsorption if rain comes too fast. An agroforestry system for coffee is much better adapted to withstand early stage climate change than monoculture coffee crops grown on large plantations. Coffee is an understory crop. It was originally found in the forests.

So how radical a change is this for coffee growers in Latin America to be moving their crops upslope and into the forests?

For many coffee farmers, they are leaning in that direction, because they are small scale. The average coffee grower only has a few acres. Very small. They are already in forested areas. It’s not a far cry to improve the agricultural productivity and sustainability of those farms because they area already on that path.

However, this where it gets difficult. If I am a coffee farmer and I need money to hire people and get the crops ready, I go to the bank. And the bank says, “What do you produce per acre?” The farmer projects a yield and gets a loan. But then I say, “I am moving into agroforestry, so I’ll be limiting the number of coffee bushes and we’re moving them around, and planting them in different places. For the first few years it will lessen my yield, but soon I’ll be just as productive with higher-quality beans.” Unfortunately, the bank sees risk. It can’t predict your yield. So either you get a loan with a higher rate of interest to cover that risk, or no loan at all. The farmer is then faced with a choice. This is where two systems come into conflict. Changing to adapt to climate change costs the farmer more because banks see a higher risk. So for farmers, it’s harder than you might imagine to break away to farm differently.

But if they keep doing the same thing, they lose their crops to heat, drought, or pests. What choice do they have?

Not much. So they are leaving their farms behind and trying to migrate to North America. The largest individual group of immigrants slamming up against the southern border of the U.S. over the last two years have been coffee farmers from Guatemala. They are climate immigrants and economic immigrants. They’ve lost their land and can’t generate income.

Bags of coffee in Guatemala. Image by j h/Flickr.

But it seems there is an option for them to move their crops upslope with agroforestry techniques if they had the economic support to do it.

We are at the cusp here — of an old way of farming and an old way of dealing with the environment and the need for adaptation. It’s a time issue. Can farmers adapt in time? They could if there was enough financial support. It would also help if coffee companies were willing to pay more for the coffee crop. That would help the immigration problem enormously. If coffee companies paid a more reasonable price for coffee, there would be far less migration. These farmers would be able to support themselves.

Consumers are paying more than ever for coffee, but the farmers have been getting less and less. For several years, the commodity price of coffee has hovered around the farmer’s cost of production, which means no profit for farmers. From a high in 2014, the prices paid to farmers have plummeted by 70% and now dance around a dollar a pound. Every pound a farmer sells, and every cup we drink, pushes a farmer deeper into poverty and despair.

If you could sit down with leaders of international lending and aid institutions, what would you recommend to keep millions of coffee farmers in the places where they have grown coffee for generations?

I’d recommend several things. Governments, aid institutions and nonprofit development organizations need to put more resources into agroforestry as well as helping share information from dryland farmers to tropical farmers about how to survive in a changing climate. That’s easily done.

Also, the coffee industry needs to do a better job of paying a fair price to growers. The value of a coffee crop is disassociated from its true cost. The price of coffee is determined in the New York Board of Trade and the impact on the farmer is destructive. The pricing mechanism of coffee does not support keeping farmers alive. I’ve been talking about getting off the commodity pricing for years and sharing the risk. Right now, all the risk is on the farmer.

Finally, consumers need to get real information so they can make informed decisions on the coffee they buy. So many of these labels claiming to be “fair trade” are misleading in terms of what’s actually happening. If there is a way for consumers to get real information, then they can make real informed choices and push for a sustainable solution for coffee farmers.

Recent research predicts that half of all coffee-growing land will be unsuitable for farming by 2050 because of climate change. There are an estimated 130 million coffee drinkers in the U.S. alone. Are future generations at risk of being without their morning coffee?

There will be coffee. There may not be as many companies or as much variety. There will a lessening of quality to keep the quantity up. Prices will be higher. And the impact on the local farmer growing coffee throughout the Third World? Devastation and massive migration. So, we’ll have coffee, but there will be a lot more dislocation and poverty in the global south.

Justin Catanoso, a regular contributor to Mongabay, is a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University. Follow him on twitter @jcatanoso.

Banner: Dean’s Beans founder Dean Cycon. Image courtesy of Dean’s Beans.

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