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Avoiding a Bitter End for Coffee From Climate Change

Avoiding a Bitter End for Coffee From Climate Change

I didn’t start drinking coffee until this past fall. Despite working as a barista for four years, and growing up in a household that takes their coffee by IV, I just never had a taste for it. The last straw that turned my years of coffee-making knowledge into a coffee-drinking routine was starting graduate school. That timing is probably no coincidence. But coffee also entered my life in another way when it became the subject of a year-long research project.

My classmates and I decided to focus on coffee for our final project after recalling headlines warning of the death of coffee due to climate change. We were looking for a link between climate stressors and coffee yield, but instead found a complicated political relationship that I decided to investigate further.

I remembered back to my cafe days, when there was an emphasis on serving only fair trade coffee. Any frequent caffeinator has likely heard this phrase—it is meant to signify top-quality beans, with standards based on social, economic, and environmental criteria. Fair Trade America even has a “climate standard,” which is meant to protect farmers in the cooperative from adverse impacts of climate change. Until I went diving deep into coffee production, I still had this heroic notion about fair trade and how it helped coffee farmers.

The problem is the system that is meant to ensure fair prices for coffee growers is inaccessible for small-scale farmers. Fair trade certification requires farmers to front a buy-in cost, which is not possible for the poorest coffee farmers, many of whom already run a yearly deficit. Economic studies of fair trade benefits, like this Harvard working paper published last year, find that any potential benefits do not extend to the most disadvantaged farm workers.

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