The COVID-19 pandemic is a genuine global health crisis that deserves all the world’s current attention and sacrifice. However, the rapid emergence of this global crisis does not make the coffee price crisis go away. For many people and businesses, it simply puts it out of focus.
As producers sell their current coffee crops, the New York ‘C’ price continues to bounce between $1.00 and $1.25 per pound. Clearly, the coffee price crisis remains in full effect, and continued speculation in soft commodities markets will ensure that it continues or even worsens.
Now, as a recent Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers webinar highlights, coffee drinkers are struggling as jobs disappear and incomes shrink, while coffee shops are struggling as lockdowns and social distancing erase local demand. As the world hunkers down, people will keep drinking coffee; they just won’t be spending as much money on it.
When the world emerges from this health crisis, most of the attention will focus on local concerns, like restoring jobs, reopening schools and replenishing savings.
All the while, people will keep drinking coffee. They just won’t have the emotional or economic energy to ask whether coffee producers are getting paid. Looking squarely upon the economic challenges of others is difficult when one’s own economic foundations are uncertain.
Therefore, most of the world’s coffee producers, who started 2020 in vulnerable economic positions, will come out of another harvest season further behind. When they look for the supporters they had in 2019, they might find that many are occupied with other pressing issues.
Over the last 18 months, we have been able to stimulate and sustain conversations and initiatives focused on the coffee price crisis. Although there are few tangible indicators of progress, these collective efforts were creating a potential for meaningful change.
We are very worried that the current pandemic will drain the collective interest in paying producers appropriately for their coffees, and that commodity markets will continue to ensure that we do not have to. Therefore, the people who grow our coffees will not recover from the effects of the current health crisis, or the many coffee price crises that go back generations. Instead, they will be faced with more rocks and more hard places.
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then the opposite must also be true. Ugliness is only visible to those who look at it. And make no mistake, the way we structure coffee supply chains and compensate coffee farmers is ugly. This is clear to those people who have been looking.
The COVID-19 health crisis has understandably tightened the views of people in traditional coffee-consuming countries on their own households and surrounding communities. The question remains, will enough people continue to look at the bigger picture in order to sustain meaningful change in the coffee trade?
We are writing this to say that we will keep drinking coffee and we will keep looking.
Peter Roberts and Chad Trewick
Peter Roberts and Chad Trewick lead the Specialty Coffee Transaction Guide efforts. Peter is the Emory University professor who founded Transparent Trade Coffee and Grounds for Empowerment. Chad has worked for more than 25 years in specialty coffee and now leads Reciprocafé LLC, a consultancy prioritizing mutual benefit throughout the coffee industry.