Coffee under threat: how climate and the global market combine to create a crisis

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 Broadcast by BBC World Service, From Our Own Correspondent, 27 May 2014: Audio http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01zdr28

Published in the Observer, 30 March 2014: Under the coffee bushes, Rosibel and Benjamín Fijardo are on their knees, scraping carefully through a litter of dead leaves and dried mud. They are scavenging for stray coffee berries, fallen when the harvesters went through the plantation last week. After 20 minutes, Benjamín has a plastic cup half full. The beans look grey and mouldy, but he says they can be dried and sold. He returns to the work: “This is how we will feed our family for the next two months. By pecking like chickens!”

Nicaragua coffee picker

Benjamin Fijardo, coffee picker in Nicaragua (Oxfam)

For two million or more coffee workers and small farmers across Central America, the “hungry season” is beginning. It’s always a thin time before crops ripen, but with this winter’s coffee harvest down 50% or more on normal, for the second year running, hunger, malnutrition and debt are new curses for hundreds of thousands. Candida Rosa Piñeda, who owns this little plantation in the village of Atuna Uno, says she has not earned enough this year to buy a new pair of shoes. And she needs to replace most of her disease-damaged coffee bushes.

The disease that has brought these calamities to the pretty hills of Jinotega, in Nicaragua‘s central highlands, is new to most of the farmers I meet. They call it roya, rust. It is ugly. First, parts of the arabica bush’s glossy green leaves turn a dirty orange. Then dark dead patches appear and become holes. The infection spreads to the ripening berries, turning them from bright red to a zombie-skin grey. Trees can be saved, but they need to be carefully pruned and, just as carefully, treated with chemicals. The chemicals can be toxic to humans, and the trees will take years to come back to their normal production.

Hemileia vastatrix, the coffee rust fungus, is a known hazard of growing arabica, which is 70% of the world’s production and all of a cup of coffee’s taste. It has been a curse of coffee planters ever since it appeared in east Africa 150 years ago. However, the rust cannot survive temperatures below 10C. In this region of Nicaragua it usually occurred only below 1,300 metres. Up in the hills, cold nights and drier weather kept the disease at bay. And so that’s where the coffee farms are.

Most of the people I met said they had never seen it until three years ago: some believed it had been deliberately sprayed from the skies by aircraft. Some thought it had spread from the banana trees that shade the coffee plants and provide crucial food for farmers. But most agree that in recent years the weather has become hotter, wetter and less predictable.

Science is in no doubt that the changing climate is behind the rust and other problems affecting coffee production worldwide – and that things are likely to deteriorate. “In many cases, the area suitable for [coffee] production would decrease considerably with increases of temperature of only 2-2.5C,” said a leaked draft of a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, officially published on Monday. The panel predicts falling coffee production in a range of countries, largely because of warmer weather. In late February, markets scared by drought in Brazil saw futures prices in coffee rise by 70%. All the coffee-producing countries of Central America have seen drops in production of 30% or more in each of the past two years. Some, such as Guatemala, report rising cases of chronic malnutrition in coffee workers’ children.

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Hunger, child nutrition and eight ways to feed the world

Wrote three stories for the Observer (links to each one below) this weekend around the G8 discussion on food security and child hunger. Interesting comments, particularly on the piece on the Gates Foundation’s work; boy, do some Guardian Online users hate the corporates. Often with good reason.

But when government has done so badly at tackling hunger among the poorest, we’re not in a position to refuse any ideas. Don’t you think? According to new research, 3.1 million children are dying every year, largely because of malnutrition – in a world with more food than it needs.

Here’s a good Economist note on the problems around using the likes of Nestle to tackle child hunger.

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Eight ways to solve world hunger

Millions of people are starving, despite the world producing more than enough to feed everyone. What can we do about it? Read more 

How lack of food security is failing a starving world

Starvation is a symptom of a larger problem involving land, health, power and ecological damage, say experts. Read more

Bill Gates: UK leading the way in tackling world hunger

Microsoft mogul addresses London rally to praise British efforts on fighting starvation

Read more

Olive oil – 5000 years of fraud and poisoning

The olive harvest

The olive harvest: the money in olives has always been an enemy of tradition and quality Photograph: David Silverman/Getty Images

Book review: The Observer,  Sunday 15 January, 2012 

Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller

Is there any foodstuff as dodgy as olive oil? Human beings have been defrauding and occasionally poisoning one another with the stuff – or simulacra of it – since the beginning of cooking. You may fairly picture a Sumerian house-spouse 5,000 years ago frowning at an amphora and saying: “The guy said he actually cold-presses extra virgin olives in his own kitchen. Funny taste, though…” Luckily, according to the cuneiform tablets discovered at Ebla, the Sumerians had a royally appointed olive oil fraud brigade.

That’s the sort of thing we need now, when the profits in olive oil crime are, as one EU official puts it, “comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks”, and the regulations less effective than at any time in the last two millennia.

Tom Mueller, in this eye-popping investigation, makes a convincing case that the fraudsters are busier and richer now than ever before. Key to their success is the confusion, snobbery and ignorance that shroud the product. I have a little experience of this: I conducted a blind tasting of extra virgin olive oils a few years ago for a national newspaper that wanted “the truth on expensive olive oil”.

We had a dozen oils, and a panel consisting of an importer, an Italian deli owner and a couple of eminent foodies: the results were so embarrassing and confusing the piece was never published. The importer went into a fugue after he was informed that he’d pronounced his own premium product “disgusting”; the deli owner chose a bottle of highly dubious “Italian extra virgin” as his favourite (it had cost £1.99 at the discount store TK Maxx); and both the foodies gave a thumbs-up to Unilever‘s much-derided Bertolli brand.

The story of the latter, a market leader here and in the United States, provides a good tour of the rottenness in the trade. The Bertollis were bankers and traders who never actually owned an olive tree, despite the bucolic Tuscan scenes depicted on their labels. They got rich on the back of the incomprehensible twist in European law that, until 2001, allowed any olive oil bottled in Italy to be sold as “Italian olive oil”, which, absurdly, is what we all pay most for. In fact, even now 80% of the oil Bertolli uses comes from Spain, North Africa and the Middle East. It it is still flogged in bottles with “Lucca” and “Passione Italiana” on the label. Today, Italy still sells three times as much oil as it produces.

More serious – for aficionados and olive farmers – Bertolli and its supermarket rivals corrupted the meaning of extra virginity, a controlled definition of high-quality oil since 1960. “Gentle”, “smooth” and “not peppery on the throat” are the sort of words Bertolli and its rivals used in ads promoting their generic extra virgin oil. But true extra virgin oil is peppery – it bites the back of the throat so fiercely it can make you cough. The flavours are vivid. “Peppery” is an official, positive attribute of “extra virgin” whereas smoothness will reliably indicate a low-quality oil.

So Bertolli and the other brands came to need low-quality oils in order to produce an expensive one. That suits them, naturally, but it is ruinous to people trying to make and sell the proper stuff. And it suits the fraudsters, who, for millennia, have been passing off oil from all sorts of plants as that of olives. The deodorising and cleaning techniques that are used to render seed oil or even oil chemically extracted from the stones and twigs of olives produce a very bland oil.

It has become almost impossible for the processors to tell when they’re being sold fake oil and, as one sadly tells Mueller, even harder for them to sell good oil for a reasonable price: “When a customer tries a robust oil, they say, ‘Oh no, this is a bad oil!’ He’s become used to the flat taste of the deodorato.” As a result, 70% of cheaper extra virgin oil sold is a fraud, according to Mueller – though that doesn’t harm the big guys. And so the Bertolli family sold up to Unilever, a company that got rich turning waste animal fats and whale oil into margarine. (Unilever has now sold Bertolli to Spain’s biggest oil corporation.)

It is an appalling and comical mess, which Mueller sees largely in terms of honest, hard-working farmers versus slippery businessmen. He interviews prime examples of both. But you could tell the same story of almost any artisan’s product we put in our mouths, from bacon to cheddar cheese or smoked salmon. Industrial production techniques and the supermarket’s tendency to strip out quality in order to give “value” will debase any foodstuff once it becomes popular to the point where the producer has to abuse his animals, sin against tradition or commit fraud in order to stay afloat.

It is a depressing story, without any obvious remedy, but it is only half this greatly entertaining book. Mueller, an American who set up home in Liguria, tells a gripping story of the rise of olive oil to the point where it symbolises civilisation – whether in the minds of a Roman legionary miserable in the lard-eating German outposts of the Empire, or on an aspirational dinner table in middle-class northern Europe or America today.

Olive oil runs through Mediterranean culture. It had a place in religious rituals, cooking, lighting, cleaning, medicine and, of course, economics. Mueller makes a case – or at least he finds an academic who will – for olive oil’s central role in pederasty in ancient Athens. Across the ages, the cool green oil flows, past an unchanging cast of cranks, crooks and fanatics. The Romans, says Mueller from the top of Monte Testaccio, a hill by the Tiber made of discarded oil amphorae, policed olive oil better than we do. They probably used it more sensibly, too: most of what we eat today on the cheap is actually lampante – oil of a grade they deemed suitable only for lighting their houses.

Original article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/jan/13/extra-virginity-tom-mueller-review

How will climate change affect Britain’s crops?

11th October 2009, The Observer

Olives, kiwi fruit, almonds – as the climate gets hotter in the UK, we may well be producing our own exotic crops

Far from the failed harvests, droughts and floods of Asia, Mark Diacono is expecting some good to come of climate change. On his 17-hectare farm beside the Otter river in north Devon, he is experimenting with the crops that might provide a living for farmers in the warmer, wetter Britain of the near future. So far the only thing he has really harvested is TV coverage – it only takes British agriculture, “food security” and climate change to be mentioned together for television news to be on the phone asking if they can send a crew to his orchards.

Nearly five years since he started his “climate change farm”, Diacono says results have been mixed. “Two olive species did well and two not. The almonds have not worked: there were two bad summers in a row. You have to take it on the chin if you’re going to try this stuff.”

Read the rest here at Guardian Online

Food, famine and climate change: India’s scorched earth

Farmer's widow Sugali Nagamma, 41, with her daughter Devi, 18. Her husband committed suicide three months ago

11th October 2009 The Observer

Suicide is the latest epidemic among farming communities as climate change parches the heart of India, destroying agriculture and plunging the poorest families into crippling debt.

In Andhra Pradesh, everyone we met had lost faith in the weather. “It is,” said one woman, a groundnut farmer and a mother of five, “like a bad husband. You cannot understand his behaviour.” Across the state and much of India the July monsoon had gone missing: it finally turned up 45 days late, and inadequate. “Scanty rain,” we were told. “Maybe just five minutes one day. Raining on one field but not the next.” No one had much idea why this had happened, and not many have heard the term “climate change“. What they do know is that it is getting hotter, and that you can’t rely on the rains any more.

By the end of September, when we arrived, a drought had been officially declared in Andhra Pradesh. Food prices were rising – rice up 20%, sugar 45%, most vegetables by even more. In Anantapur, the driest district of this dry state in the centre of the subcontinent, the farming families – some of the poorest people in India – were in crisis. Adults were going without meals to save money, children were being taken out of school, the older ones sent off to the city of Bangalore to look for work. The farmers were selling animals, registering for the government’s rural employment scheme, doing anything they could to stave off the moneylenders. Then early this month, massive storms brought floods that drove nearly half a million people in Andhra Pradesh from their homes.

Read on at the Guardian website