Time to take a coffee break

May 16, 2011


MY PICTURE OF the week depicts the legendary tenth century Ethiopian nomadic goat-herder Kaldi who is supposed to have been the first human to discover the electrifying effects of coffee (Humanity stream, panel 6).

One day, it is said, his goats went crazy after munching the red berries of an unknown wild bush. Maybe out of curiosity, or perhaps out of boredom, Kaldi ate some of the fruits himself. Not long after, some passing monks who lived nearby spotted him dancing gaily among his goats. They took the berries, crushed them – seeds and all – into a thick paste, added hot water and were the first humans to sample the highly stimulating delights of what we now call coffee. They liked the brew because it helped them stay awake for all-night prayers.

The charming story of Kaldi and his goats springs to my mind this week for two reasons.

One is that yesterday, while on my way to collect my youngest daughter from a reorder workshop in Maidstone, I had the pleasure of listening to a half hour radio 4 documentary on the global impact of coffee – a hot topic in global economics, so I heard, now that commodity speculators have moved in.

The second is to do with the extraordinary lack of rain in these parts (in contrast to the poor people of Louisiana). Despite specially bred strains of drought-resistance maize, which have been planted in the fields surrounding our Black Barn, the local farmer tells me he is now extremely nervous about the plight of his crops this year owing to a drastic lack of rain.

Nothing lives without water.  Actually, water is not always necessary for survival. In the quirky world of bacteria, where just about every biological experiment has been explored, it is possible for life to persist in totally arid conditions. Some bacteria (firmicutes, such as anthrax, for example) are able to morph themselves into survival capsules called endospores. In such conditions they can survive for hundreds of years without water, seed-like, waiting until sufficiently damp conditions return allowing them to spring back into life.

But it is safe to say that nothing can grow without water. So I was rather surprised to find that this morning’s BBC documentary about coffee failed to mention what is surely the biggest issue of all concerning the world’s addiction to this natural insecticide (that’s what caffeine is, if you’re a plant).

The big story regarding coffee, so far as I can see, has far less to do with the artificial mechanics of market price, commodity speculation or the price paid to farmers. Rather, it’s all about a far simpler natural process called rain. One extraordinary estimate I have seen suggests that the amount of water needed to sow, grow, harvest, process, transport and consume a cup of coffee is equivalent to a staggering 140 litres per cup.

How can this be? Apparently modern mass-produced coffee plantations – that are cultivated in the full sun to increase yield – are mostly to blame. In its natural habitat covered by the shade of the rainforest canopy, coffee plants grow slowly in the shade, consuming relatively modest quantities of ground water. But today’s agribusiness model turns this on its head such that coffee (along with cotton) has become one of the most demanding crops on the world’s water table.

Nothing better illustrates what happens when pure market-led economics (the domain of our analytical left-brains) is allowed free reign over human conduct

Making judgements as to what extent such wastage matters is more down to instinct than empirical science. Climate change, human induced or otherwise, seems truly beyond human understanding. The weather has always been chaotic, (or, if you prefer, it is controlled by the irascible gods). Whilst it is possible to see long terms trends precipitate in hindsight, there are so many variables that attempts at future climate prediction are, and I believe always will be, highly speculative.

But one fact is certain.

Growing coffee in places low in fresh water supplies is a truly bad idea. Yet today, this is what the economic ecocide of modern globalisation inflicts on countries in Kaldi’s Africa. The result is the mass-transportation of water from the driest parts of the world to the wettest. Nothing better illustrates what happens when pure market-led economics (the domain of our analytical left-brains) is allowed free reign over human conduct. The lack of an overreaching narrative context leads to behaviour equivalent to madness.

Kaldi’s leaps of joy may still resonate for global coffee traders and hedge funds able to cash in on today’s peak in prices. But coffee farmers will rightly ponder how long their livelihoods can possibly persist in a modern world where so much of the water their crops depend on for growth rapidly sinks down the gullets of consumers in homes, offices, cafes and bars throughout the ignorant, urban and mostly western world.



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