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Have a hot coffee

26 May 2021 | News Roundup

In the world of climate change it often seems that all is bleak beyond imagining. But then a ray of sunshine bursts through, in this case, the clouds on a West African hillside to reveal the lost world of Coffea stenophylla. It’s not quite like the recent story that refreshingly didn’t even mention climate change in lamenting the collapse of “Darwin’s Arch” in the Galapagos. Or the one that didn’t blame climate change for a fatal shark attack in Australia, probably because it was the first one of the year, whereas last year’s random spike was predictably attributed to it. This story did mention climate change and indeed blamed it for a supposed future reduction of traditional coffee crops to a heap of charred grounds. But then it said yes there would be other coffee. And unlike the typical climate change tale of apocalypse where we end up clinging to life by eating bugs and brewing dandelions and ditch water, this story says outright that stenophylla coffee actually tastes good. Really good. So good we want some.

The story was unusual for the genre in having some plausibility. Coffee production is actually doing just fine despite all the supposed devastating impacts of climate from hurricanes to droughts and floods. But while your “java” is hardly threatened by warmth, moisture or CO2, it has been threatened by the success of coffee production in one of those typical modern paradoxes where sustained application of effective technique improves something until it is ruined. Specifically, monoculture and successful breeding, which really do improve yield and sometimes other prized qualities as well, but create enormous vulnerability to pests.

A classic instance, perhaps the first major one, was the Irish potato famine, which could only happen because widespread adoption not just of potatoes but of the wet, lousy-soil-tolerant “Irish Lumper” in particular had enormously improved the condition and diet of the poor in Ireland, only to devastate the growing population that resulted when the blight struck. It has also happened to bananas twice, with the Gros Michel largely succumbing by the 1960s and the replacement Cavendish now in trouble.

Similarly, the story of coffee is the selection of just two varieties from the more than 100 known to exist, the high-tone Coffea arabica which is harder to cultivate but tastes good, and the rugged Coffea robusta which lies behind such jibes as American author Edward Abbey’s crack that “Our culture runs on coffee and gasoline, the first often tasting like the second.” Such an agricultural system is effective, but brittle, vulnerable to shocks because of its lack of flexibility and resilience.

We will not pursue the point further here beyond noting that here as so often, the critics of capitalism are sometimes right about details while being very wrong about the big picture. Including breeding vegetables so they will look great in the supermarket after traveling a long way by truck, at the expense of having any flavour, and breeding chickens so bulky they can barely walk but furnish startling quantities of meat so flavourless that, as Michael Pollan observed, trendy chefs will triple-marinade it before drowning it in a dozen spices, when the old heritage varieties just needed salt and pepper.

The heritage varieties are out there. Including when it comes to coffee. Another profile of the rediscoverers of Stenophylla started “Arabica and robusta dominate the global coffee market, making up almost 100% of all coffee sold across the world. Despite this, however, there are 122 other known species within the Coffea genus, yet these have little impact on the wider industry. However, with 60% of all coffee species under threat thanks to deforestation and the impact of climate change, some are looking at these other, unknown species to provide the industry with more security.” And this observation comes from a publication called Perfect Daily Grind which, one may safely assume, is not devoted to holding one’s nose while choking down an acidic cup of Joe that sat on the burner for an hour in the greasy spoon first.

Its readers and editors want the rich, authentic, sophisticated flavour of good coffee. But, they also note, after enjoying some popularity in the late 19th century, especially in France, not home of the double-double, Stenophylla faded because it takes longer to mature and yields fewer beans per plant.

We’re all for artisanal coffee and sophisticated hobbies, provided you don’t inflict them on others through government compulsion or drone on endlessly while we fumble for the doorknob. We welcome efforts to restore heritage breeds of chicken even if they look like real birds, to grow ancient grains and to engage in restorative farming. Though we also recognize the vast improvement in human well-being built on mass-production including in agriculture that now allow people in wealthy countries to sacrifice some raw productivity for complexity, resilience and ecological soundness. Should someone offer us a well-made cup of Stenophylla we will accept with unfeigned enthusiasm. But not if the cup says “I survived the apocalypse.”

As we noted when the experts “who say” declared coffee endangered due to climate change, or in this case the very woke corporation Starbucks whose windows anti-globalists are oddly fond of smashing, perhaps because they know where they are, “The world has a coffee surplus and production is extremely robust.” And for anyone not given to curiosity about the globalized contents of their bowls, plates and cups, coffee is generally grown in warm places. The ads generally feature Juan Valdez in Columbia not Joe Pulaski in Saskatchewan. And if global temperature rises slightly, coffee will flourish and spread not wither and die.

Including, we hope, Stenophylla. Because it is good, not because it’s all Mad Max has left.

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