You won’t find any climate change deniers on the mountains of Uganda. Thirsty coffee trees don’t do fake news.
Nor does broccoli. When the rain fell too heavily on the plains of Spain in December 2016, washing away entire crops, broccoli and other vegetables disappeared from British supermarket shelves. Prices soared and bulk purchase limits were imposed.
It should have been a wake-up call. Food doesn’t appear in our shops by magic. We can’t take our greens for granted. Sadly the inconvenience of this inconvenient truth will be short-lived. We will hit a collective snooze button until the next alarm, which will be more urgent and more persistent.
Uganda’s coffee farmers don’t have the luxury of that kind of procrastination. Climate change is a clear and present danger at the point of origin.
In the Rwenzori Mountains, which form the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo in the west, leaf rust is affecting coffee trees at greater altitudes every year. This insidious progression doesn’t make for dramatic time-lapse images like a receding glacier but it is every bit as real, and its implications are every bit as profound.
As recently as 2012, in the Mount Elgon Range, which forms the border with Kenya in the east, it rained at 3pm for an hour and a half every day for eleven months of the year. In tropical east Africa, Mother Nature was the speaking clock. (At the third drop it will be three o’clock precisely.)
By contrast the torrential rains of February 2017 marked the end of three months of drought which, despite the best efforts of the region’s farmers, had left coffee trees looking withered and stressed. To add insult to injury the rain washed away vulnerable, dry topsoil. The environment is getting worse for coffee and better for coffee diseases. Yields and quality will be adversely affected.
Konrad Brits, CEO of Falcon Coffees, speculated to me that the blankets of coffee covering the mountains will quickly dwindle to a few, high-altitude islands. He foresees a not too distant future in which high quality coffee is the preserve of billionaire oligarchs. There was irony in that statement, given that many of those same oligarchs have vested financial or political interests in climate change denial, but there was barely a trace of hyperbole.
Wake up and smell the coffee while you can.
I tagged along with Konrad on a week long visit to Uganda. He was working. I was a coffee tourist. It was an eye-opener. Climate change and poverty at origin are the main enemies of sustainable food production.
Also tagging along, but anything but a tourist, was Dr Tim Shilling. Tim is CEO of World Coffee Research, a not for profit organisation working to ensure the future of coffee and coffee farmers. We were all the guests of Great Lakes Coffee, a third generation family company that sources and mills green (not roasted) coffee from Ugandan farmers.
Falcon, Great Lakes Coffee and World Coffee Research have a shared agenda to protect and improve the livelihoods of small-hold farmers. And, to that end, Tim was in Uganda to work with farmers and agronomists to establish a programme of in-situ experiments with potentially disease-resistant coffee varieties. These new varieties are the product of natural, hybrid breeding rather than genetic modification. Hopefully the initiative will buy some time to address apparently inexorable climate deterioration at a more fundamental level.
It is too easy and too convenient to view climate change as tomorrow’s problem. It is real, it is important, but it is not as urgent as the more immediate and pressing concerns of daily life. Not when there is coffee in our cups and broccoli on our plates. This is its own form of denial.
Broccoli rationing is a sure sign that we need to reboot our relationship with food. Our geographic remove from the the point of origin and the people who produce is no excuse to be intellectually or emotionally remote.
For a start the language is all wrong. Coffee is not a commodity. It is a precious and fragile gift. And these are not abstract supply chains. They are circles of human life and international trade that connect us to very important but ridiculously undervalued people in fragile high places.
These people and the fruits of their labours need to be better appreciated, conspicuously celebrated and fiercely protected.
First published on Medium.