There’s An Awful Lot Of Coffee In Brazil

At least, that’s what the songi tells us. But you would be wrong to think that now, for the times are apparently changing, and climate change is wreaking devastation on the coffee crop in Brazil. Not global warming, mind you, but climate change, or perhaps even climate chaos. For this year’s coffee crop in Brazil hasn’t suffered from heat, but from frosts. According to the Guardianii:

Farmers in coffee-producing regions of Brazil have been grappling with a string of droughts in recent years and while frosts are common in July and August, the suddenness and severity of the most recent event caught producers by surprise.

Freezing temperatures struck in late July after an unprecedented Antarctic front resulted in snow falling in the hills and frost spreading across coffee trees in the Cerrado Mineiro region of Minas Gerais state.

A couple of weeks later the BBC confirmed the situationiii, though in doing so put more stress on drought than on frosts as being the cause of the problem in Brazil:

Brazil’s most severe drought in almost a century is partly to blame for a disappointing coffee harvest this year.

Combined with frosts and the natural cycle of harvests, it has contributed to a significant fall in coffee production.

The BBC article also alludes to another problem suffered by Brazil because of drought:

With most of the country’s electricity coming from hydroelectric power using reservoirs, the lack of water is having a direct impact on the country’s energy supply.

As energy prices go up, the authorities are asking people to limit their electricity use to avoid rationing. The energy minister said that government agencies had been asked to reduce their electricity use by 20%…

That’s one of the many problems of going “green” and relying on unreliable sources of “renewable” energy. 2021 has seen shortfalls of wind in western Europe and shortfalls of hydro power in Brazil. It’s maybe not such a good idea to put all one’s energy eggs in a single basket, after all, but that’s another story.

Still, that’s the problem with looking into things. One thing leads to another. Wikipediaiv refers to the 2014-17 drought in Brazil as the worst there in 100 years (the drought of 1877-80 being the worst there in recorded historyv) and suggests that it is linked to the deforestation of the Amazon. It also alludes to the problems caused for Brazil’s electricity generation:

As 70% of Brazil’s electricity is generated by hydropower, the lack of water lead to energy rationing in addition to water rationing. In response to decreased hydroelectric power, rolling power cuts were instituted. Water and electricity prices were expected to rise a month or two after the elections in October. Power utilities In Brazil stated that the loss of hydro-generating capacity had cost them 15.8bn reais (£4.3bn). Most of this was spent on more expensive alternative such as oil and other carbon-based fuels that filled the gap in electricity supply. This in turn pushed up Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions in the years of 2015 to 2017.

Sometimes “green” isn’t so “green” apparently.

Never known to undersell climate issues, by contrast, the Guardian in January 2015vi was talking about “Brazil’s worst drought in history”. Despite the hyperbolic headline, at least the Guardian had the decency to admit that the situation was complicated:

As well as global warming, they say Brazil’s weather patterns have been disrupted by the loss of Amazon rainforest and the growth of cities.

Where was I? Oh yes, coffee.

Historical Prices

There is nothing unusual, it seems, in the price of coffee being relatively high at the moment. A very useful websitevii offers us an interactive price of coffee (priced in US$) going back to 1969, and the price of $2.016, as of 18th October 2021, is far from unusual, with price spikes of well over $2.50 on four occasions since 1969. This year’s price increase of 57.19% to date is also far from unusual, with 2010 seeing a 76.9% price increase; 2004 seeing a 59.74% increase; 1994 seeing a 135.99% increase; 1985 seeing a 69.63% increase; and 1976 seeing a price increase of 157.25%.

That 1976 price spike appears to have been caused by a combination of the collapse of quota systems in 1973 and a heavy frost in Brazil in 1975 (yes, the climate chaos Brazilian frosts are nothing new), as the Daily Coffee News websiteviii tells us.

Historical coffee frosts in Brazil

The Coffee Research website includes a very interesting tableix setting out the history of frosts in Brazil which have affected the coffee crop there between 1900 and 2000. It seems that there was a frost event roughly every four years, with 24 such events being listed between 1902 and 2000. Interestingly, the only such incident described as “devastating” was that which occurred in 1902. The only “very severe” event was the frost in 1975, to which reference has already been made above (although in fairness the 1994 event seems to have been borderline, and is described as severe/very severe). Of the other eight “severe” frosts listed in the table, the preponderance of such events seems to have been earlier rather than more recently, with the 1950s being particularly problematic – 1918; 1942; 1953; 1955; 1957; 1966; 1981; and 1999. Perhaps this historical information suggests that global warming is real, with frosts becoming less frequent in Brazil, despite the 2021 event. However, if so, that would be cause for less, not more, alarmism around the Brazilian coffee industry and climate change.

Indeed, if the Coffee Research website is to be believed (and they, not I, are the experts), there is precious little cause for concern:

Further, as more Brazilian coffee farmers move north to avoid frost problems, the Brazilian coffee production will not fluctuate as dramatically when a frost occurs. This, however, will lead to an overabundance of coffee worldwide that may keep coffee prices low throughout the world. As Vietnam boosts its Arabica production, the oversupply of coffee will likely become the most pressing issue in the specialty coffee industry.

Conclusion

As always, the Guardian (in the first of its articles referred to above) seeks to make a climate change story out of problems associated with Brazilian coffee:

Scientists have long warned climate change is coming for our morning coffee and a recent spike in global bean prices could be the first sign it’s actually happening.

Global coffee prices are forecast to jump to $4.44 a kilogram this year, according to IBISWorld, after a July cold snap in a major arabica coffee-producing region of Brazil wiped out a third of the crop….

…The increasing volatility and frequency of extreme weather events in Brazil are attributed to climate change.

The worry now is that rising temperatures will lower both humidity and rainfall, leading to more prolonged periods of drought. By some calculations, Brazil has not had a typical rainy season since 2010.

…Prof Lesley Hughes, a spokesperson with the Climate Council and a distinguished professor of biology at Macquarie University, said farmers around the world were reporting similar experiences with fires, flood and drought.

We’re also increasingly seeing farmers going bankrupt because there is just one extreme climate event too many, and some of these extremes are compounding. Going from a fire to a flood and then into a drought, for example,” Hughes said.

Climate change is a known long-term risk to crops like coffee, chocolate and wine grapes that require specific conditions to thrive.

As a tropical crop, coffee trees struggle in low temperatures and begin to die in sub-zero temperatures as ice particles “burn” their leaves. Because the plants take several years to establish, any significant loss can threaten to knock out producers.

The coffee merchant and Brazilian expat Andre Selga said the uncertainty created by unusual weather patterns had made the industry “really tense”.

Most farmers have never seen anything like it,” Selga said.

Frost in that area is normal but not at that intensity and not at that altitude. I’ve heard of farmers that lost everything. All the plants. They’re waiting now to see if some of them can recover. They’ve lost their whole livelihood.”

Selga said the price of the green beans he imports has jumped 60% and while the cost of freight was a factor, he was more concerned about the increasing uncertainty created by climate change.

That seems to contain quite a few inconsistencies. I’m not a coffee grower and I’m not a climate change expert, but the brief historical summary above suggests to me that that however damaging recent climatic events have been in Brazil they are not unusual, and as always, the hype is overdone. Only time will tell whether the alarmists at the Guardian or this “keep calm and carry on” author is right. For now, though, I note that my local supermarket shelves are full of coffee and I can still buy a 200g jar of Nescafe Gold Blend for £4.00, which is as cheap as it has been for a long time (and our Taylor’s of Harrogate filter coffee is also as plentiful and as cheap as ever).

Endnotes

i “The Coffee Song” (occasionally subtitled “They’ve Got an Awful Lot of Coffee in Brazil”) is a novelty song written by Bob Hilliard and Dick Miles, first recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1946. Later that year it was recorded by The Smart Set, and by others in later years. The song caricatures Brazil’s coffee surplus, jokingly claiming that no other beverages are available.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Coffee_Song

ii https://www.theguardian.com/food/2021/sep/30/coffee-bean-price-spike-just-a-taste-of-whats-to-come-with-climate-change

iii https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/explainers-58868636

iv https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2014%E2%80%932017_Brazilian_drought

v https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/drought-region-brazil

most agree that severe droughts occurred in 1639, 1724–1725, 1736–1737, 1745–1746, 1777–1778, 1791–1793, 1825–1827, 1845–1847, 1877–1880, 1888–1889, 1906, 1915, 1936, 1953, 1958, and 1979–1983. The social and economic consequences of several of these earned them the label grandes secas (great droughts).”

vi https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/23/brazil-worst-drought-history

vii https://www.macrotrends.net/2535/coffee-prices-historical-chart-data

viii https://dailycoffeenews.com/2014/10/06/a-brief-history-of-coffee-price-volatility-in-the-modern-era-1963-2013/

ix http://www.coffeeresearch.org/market/frosthistory.htm

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October 19, 2021 at 06:48AM

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