Coffee and Climate Change

I write this post from Michael Thomas Coffee Roaster, a bustling little café in New Mexico that roasts and serves some of the best coffee I’ve tasted. One of the beans on the menu is a light roast from the El Molina de Santa Rita, in Ataco, Ahuachapán, El Salvador.  Mike, the owner and roaster, says the Santa Rita beans are a typical Central American coffee that “cups well” – industry language for ‘makes a good cup a joe.’

Last week, a local paper in Chattanooga, Tennessee wrote about the Camp House Coffee Bar, which is experimenting with all sorts of bean washes and brewing methods. They use the drip method (using standard washing), cold brew, Pour-over and drip method (using natural sundried method); Cascara tea using dried coffee cherries; and single origin espresso. One of the beans that the Camp House Coffee Bar features is from Finca Mauritania, located on the slopes of Ilamantepec, the Volcano of Santa Ana just to the north of Ataco Ahuachapán.

Whether you’re stopping off at a local coffee shop for a morning fix, exploring the nuances of different wash and brew methods, or just picking up a bag of beans at the grocery store, its likely that Salvadoran beans are among your choices.

Unfortunately, we can’t talk about Salvadoran coffee without also talking about climate change.

According to Business Week, “coffee exports from El Salvador soared to 23,081 bags in October 2011 from 1,101 bags October 2010. To repeat, export of coffee beans from El Salvador rose from 1,100 bags in October 2010 to 23,000 bags in October 2011. Ana Elena Escalante, the Executive Director of El Salvador’s Coffee Council, says, “exports rose because the changes in climate ripened beans sooner than normal,” and as a result, growers accelerated the harvest.

I mentioned the early harvest to Mike (the New Mexico roaster) and he was not at all surprised. He says that climate change has been wreaking havoc with bean growers for the past few years. Some of his favorite beans from Africa have not been available the last couple years because the climate in those growing regions has changed so much.

At first glance the 23,000 bags produced in October appears to be a good sign for El Salvador – maybe there is a silver lining to climate change?

Nope. If you’ve followed this blog for the past month, you know that El Salvador just experienced the worst rains and flooding in modern history – 55 inches of rain in 10 days. The Minister of the Environment has repeatedly attributed this storm and others in recent years to climate change. This morning, Reuters is running a story that quotes Environmental Minister Herman Rosa,

“many people think of climate change as a problem that will crop up some decades from now if we don’t do something urgently. And when you frame it that way, there is no sense of urgency at all. But I think that dangerous antropogenic (man made) climate interference is already with us.”

Procafe, a coffee industry group, says that the heavy rains in October will reduce the overall size of El Salvador’s coffee crop for the year by as much as 239,000 bags for the year – 17% of the country’s coffee output.

Environmental Minister Rosa does not offer hope that the international community is ready to take action. He points out that the UN is hosting a climate change summit at the end of November, but states “we are still dragging our feet, thinking we have time.” This morning, the Financial Times is also playing down hopes that the summit will result in a “pact that legally obliges countries to stop pumping out so much carbon dioxide, the green house gas blamed for global warming.” The Financial Times article does cite different actions that large corporations are taking to reduce their emissions, but the proposition that we depend on the private sector to self-regulate its carbon emissions is ridiculous this late in the game.

Climate change is a reality and we are seeing its manifestations in El Salvador, whether it is larger storms or changes in coffee production.

Earth 911 and the EPA have lists of things we can do as individuals to help prevent climate change. But the US government must start taking climate change seriously. Call your representative, attend city or municipal council meetings, and talk to your friends and neighbors.

…and I’m sure on some level, supporting your local roaster is yet another way to prevent climate change!

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