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Why You Should Be Worried About Coffee Farmers As a Coffee Drinker

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There is a major crisis brewing in some of the world’s largest coffee-producing regions, driven by many factors: climate change, rising coffee prices, labor shortages. This article explores what coffee drinkers in the Catskills and Hudson Valley should know about coffee farmers and the extraordinary pressures they face.

The Hudson Valley has a long and proud history of environmental activism, and it shows no signs of abating. But despite this work, a number of scientific reports have predicted with frightening precision the regions in New York that are most at risk of a climate-related crisis.

Evidence shows that climate change will contribute to an increase in tick- and mosquito-borne infectious diseases. It is also impossible to separate the interlinked issues of climate change, food insecurity, migration/displacement, and supply chain disruption.

There is no clearer example of the potential for mass human suffering caused by climate change than in the case of coffee farmers in the global south. Already being touted as a migration crisis with its roots in the coffee crisis, people from Central America are coming to the US in large numbers.

Credit: Livier Garcia/Pexels
Coffee beans before being roasted.

Could the abandonment of coffee farms, in part due to climate change, be the canary in the coal mine for other food producers?

Recognizing that food security is one of the most pressing issues of our time, there are a number of local organizations doing stellar work in the Hudson Valley and Catskills area. One example from within the food industry is the work of the Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, where a recent article highlighted the importance of embedding food and worker justice into systems of production. 

Because coffee cannot be grown using local resources, we must interrogate our coffee habits and ask why we have let human suffering become an acceptable feature on the coffee supply chain.  

Coffee Farmers Struggling to Survive

Part of the reason why there are razor-thin margins within the global coffee industry is because of the very limited regions of the world where coffee can be grown. To grow this notoriously difficult crop, it’s necessary to plant it in areas that have the suitable conditions of temperature, altitude, and rainfall. 

Climate is one of the most fundamental factors in ensuring sustainable growth and a profitable yield. A report predicted that at the current rate of global warming, up to 50 percent of the land used for growing coffee would no longer be suitable for crops by 2050.

The future does not look bright for coffee farmers. Some of the major challenges cited by frontline producers include coffee leaf rust, changing climates, decreasing coffee prices, lack of available farm laborers, and farm owners falling into debt when there is a poor yield. The situation has resulted in droves of workers and owners abandoning their plantations. 

Credit: Pixabay
Coffee farmers are being displaced due to climate change.

Sooner or later, we will have to reckon with the fact that our coffee habits are fueling the displacement of farmers, some of whom are eventually forced to come to the United States as a result. 

Dual Challenges of Immigration and Climate Change

There is reason to hope that immigration processes will be made fairer and more humane under the Biden administration, but even when migrants do manage to enter the United States, the long route towards US citizenship is not easy.  

As well as the destructive effects of COVID-19, Guatemala and Honduras (two major coffee-producing regions) are dealing with the aftermath of two hurricanes in 2020 that displaced millions. Add to this widespread violence and political instability, many have no choice but to seek refuge in the United States. Jorge Reyes, a farmer from Honduras told The New York Times, “If we are going to die anyway, we might as well die trying to get to the United States.”

Although it may seem as though there is little that we can do, there are other ways we can show solidarity with displaced people. Welcoming and supporting people who have the courage to come to a new country is one major action that communities can take. These resources outline ways that we can work towards racial justice on a local level in the Hudson Valley. 

Today, the foreign-born population is 17.1 percent in Hudson, 19.6 percent in Poughkeepsie, and 24 percent in Newburgh, all well above than the national average (13.7 percent). Many of these folks are from areas like the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Guatemala. Other organizations such as Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, an immigrant rights group fighting for the rights of all residents in the Hudson Valley, have achieved a number of major victories for people of all immigrant backgrounds and people with undocumented status. 

Climate change will eventually affect all of us, and we cannot ignore some of its first victims. 

Where Do We Go from Here?

It is estimated that by 2050, up to 1.5 million migrants from Central America and Mexico will come to the United States, in part due to the struggling coffee industry. Are we ready to have a conversation about how we can prevent this inevitable humanitarian crisis? 

Making ethical choices about coffee consumption is one of the simplest ways for consumers to make a difference. Look for “directly traded” labels that can demonstrate they pay fair and consistent prices to coffee farmers. Patronize local businesses that show a commitment to fair trading practices (think Irving Farm Coffee in the Hudson Valley).

The unwelcome forces of climate change, crop failure, capricious commodity markets, and destabilized political regions have meant that some of the most exploited groups of workers have little choice but to leave their homes and their ways of living.  

The very least that we can do is to re-examine our habits and ensure that our hands are clean in this process. Let’s continue to think globally, and act locally, starting with your next cup of coffee.

The River is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the newsroom.