Q&A With Peet's Coffee

Climate change is forcing coffee growers to higher elevations. How will buyers and sellers of the delicate crop adjust?

Coffee is a notoriously finicky crop, requiring just the right amount of light, heat, and moisture.  That makes coffee farmers especially vulnerable to climate change.

A recent study in Kenya, Mexico, Peru, and Nicaragua showed that higher temperatures are forcing growers uphill at an average rate of three to four meters per year. Peruvian coffee harvests dropped 30 percent since 2008, and Brazilian growers are considering relocating their operations to cooler regions.

Oakland-based Peet's Coffee & Tea buys coffee beans from many regions affected most by climate change, so we spoke to Shirin Moayyad , director of coffee purchasing, about how the company is dealing with the strain on its suppliers.

Atlantic: Recent research has shown that rising temperatures are pushing small coffee growers farther up mountains and, in some cases, forcing them to relocate or grow different varieties of beans. How have these developments affected Peet's?

Moayyad: Peet's has always bought such expensive coffee that I don't think, for us, it makes much of a difference. Because we're buying such high-quality beans, we're already buying really high-altitude coffee. If I wanted to hide my head in the sand, I could. But I'm not interested in doing that. In fact, I think in the coffee industry there are huge opportunities to do things for the environment.

In our experience, though, there are bummers, and most of those have to do with what rain does to coffee. For example, in Papua New Guinea, there's only one road. It runs from the harbor into the mountains, where coffee is grown -- that's why the road exists, to transport the coffee. It rains every year, which knocks out bridges, and we're stuck if we don't have a good stock of coffee. If the rain is very torrential it can knock the coffee flowers off the trees. So those are definitely the bummers in how climate change can impact us.

But there's also the odd opportunity, which is probably not what I should be talking about. There's one coffee -- we call it Panama Esmeralda, but it's mostly known as Geisha

-- that goes for $130 a pound. We call it the silver lining on a rainy day. The original growers were a Swedish family who moved down to Panama a while ago, where we were buying all of their coffees. They had a very high elevation on one small block of their farm, and this particular block was always yielding a very high-quality, extremely floral cup, but they couldn't narrow it down and figure out why.

A few years ago, it was a very rainy year in Panama, which gets absolutely battered when it rains. After this particular year, all the trees on that block, except for one, were destroyed. When the storm passed they went back to harvest the tree and discovered, completely by accident, that what remained was the Geisha variety that had been contributing this extraordinary cup. It came from a region in Ethiopia and had been sent to a coffee research center in Costa Rica, then randomly distributed throughout South America. This coffee only expresses itself in full measure, with all the flavor highlights, at a very high altitude. It was just sheer dumb luck that it showed up at this really high elevation and that the farmers discovered it because of bad weather.

Atlantic: So it sounds like high-quality coffee is well-suited to the different weather patterns brought on by climate change. In what other ways is the high-quality coffee industry adapting to these changes?

Moayyad: We are in a strong position re: global warming, but again, I'm very excited about all the different greening measures these farms are taking. The concept of carbon retention is particularly well suited to coffee because coffee grows on trees, which absorb carbon. But also, the very best coffee is shade-grown. Shade slows down growth and maturation and makes for a denser bean. That means there's something to be optimistic about in high-grown, good coffee.

I just got back from India, where I was visiting this one particular farm whose coffee we always run around Father's Day. On this farm, there's a particular deadly pest that kills coffee trees, and the only thing that can control it is shade. Farmers have to achieve that balance of adequate crop quantity -- you can't put in too much shade -- with losing the crop entirely to the pest. There's a beautiful natural symmetry about that that just feels right. It's actually true, you can bring nature and economics into harmony, since what else helps retain carbon but shade?

Atlantic: Is climate change more of a threat to lesser-quality producers?

Moayyad: I don't necessarily see global warming as as much of a danger to the coffee industry as others do because I'm more aware that as farms begin to take these measures, it's for the long-term viability of coffee. Whatever's good for greening the planet is good for the coffee. If you look at the Indian example, with the shade, if they don't do that, the potential is that they lose their entire crop. I would love it if we could do something on coffee estates where you set aside additional trees, pay the farmers for extra carbon retention, and use that to offset your own electricity. I would love to see those farms become carbon neutral. I would say at this stage, that's beginning to develop -- I'm working on a pilot project.

Atlantic: Other than carbon retention, how are the growers you work with adapting to new climate realities?

Moayyad: We work with one very successful cooperative in Costa Rica. In the process of fermenting their coffee, which all of these areas do, they figured out a way to capture the methane the coffee releases during fermentation, and they figured out a way to use it as fuel for their dryers. This technology is increasingly being used on coffee farms. At the main farm that we buy from in Papua New Guinea, the edges of the coffee blocks have been seeded with Vetiver grass to prevent erosion and run-off. Once it's cut, this grass also has a secondary purpose of providing material for handicraft weaving. It retains soil and saves soil nutrients, but it also has this second income generation purpose.

One of the most technological places I saw for green measures, though, was in Brazil. We only buy from three Brazilian farms, and those three farms are really at the top of their game in terms of compliance with good agricultural practices. Each of the farms there has an environmental plan devised by external consultants. Those plans have to be designed in compliance with the laws of each province. 16 or so years ago, the law decreed that for every hectare of coffee land, the farm had to have 20 percent of the land held in reserve. For any one tree that was destroyed in planting new farms, they have to replant four more trees of an indigenous variety.

Atlantic: So do you think the coffee industry in general is moving toward greener, high-quality growing practices?

Moayyad: Wherever there's a solid environmental reason for doing something, it makes farms run better and more efficiently anyway. If you have a choice between coffee grown in a lovely shaded environment, you're going to buy that, aren't you, rather than something grown out in the open sun, in huge quantities, where the soil has been leeched of nutrients? I really see this as being a story of optimism rather than pessimism.

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