Coffee prices may skyrocket as ‘severe production crisis’ looms for industry thanks to pandemic

NEWARK, N.J. — Just when it seems like the devastating impacts of the coronavirus pandemic were finally starting to wind down, new research brings bad news for coffee lovers. Researchers warn that the Covid crisis could send the price of a cup of coffee soaring amid an already-challenging time for the industry.

Experts say that the huge socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic will likely cause a “severe production crisis” in the coffee industry, most likely by triggering a fresh outbreak of a deadly plant disease. The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was led by researchers at Rutgers University in collaboration with scientists from the University of Arizona, University of Hawaii and the University of Exeter in the U.K.

“Any major impacts in the global coffee industry will have serious implications for millions of people across the globe, including the coffee retail market,” says lead author Dr. Kevon Rhiney, an assistant professor in Rutgers’ Department of Geography, in a statement.

Coffee study
COVID-19’s socio-economic effects will likely cause another severe production crisis in the coffee industry, according to a Rutgers University-led study. (Credit: Zackry Guido)

Coffee industry had its struggles even before pandemic began

Coffee is one of the most widely traded agricultural commodities in the world, supporting the livelihoods of around 100 million people globally, mainly in low income countries. But the industry has long struggled with several factors, including institutional reforms, volatile market prices, extreme climate, pests and plant diseases.

“The coffee production system was teetering before COVID,” explains co-author Zackry Guido, assistant research professor in the Arizona Institutes for Resilience, in a statement. “I fear that changes from COVID that do not address root causes of vulnerability will be one shock too many for many of the smallholders. A better understanding of the fragility of the production chain is needed.”

The Covid pandemic is the latest threat to the coffee industry, acting as a potential trigger for renewed epidemics of coffee leaf rust, the most severe coffee plant disease in the world.

The research team drew on recent studies of the fungal disease, which has severely impacted several countries around Latin America and the Caribbean over the last decade. They looked at how previous outbreaks have been linked to poor crops and investment in coffee farms, and how Covid-19’s impacts on the workforce, unemployment, lockdowns and international border policies could affect investments in coffee plants and in turn create conditions favorable for future shocks.

‘No magic bullet will make this problem disappear’

The researchers concluded that Covid’s socioeconomic disruptions are likely to drive the coffee industry into another severe production crisis.

“Our paper shows that coffee leaf rust outbreaks are complex socioeconomic phenomena, and that managing the disease also involves a blend of scientific and social solutions,” says Dr. Rhiney. “There is no ‘magic bullet’ that will simply make this problem disappear. Addressing coffee leaf rust involves more than just getting outbreaks under control; it also involves safeguarding farmers’ livelihoods in order to build resilience to future shocks.”

Coffee study
The Rutgers-led research team drew on recent studies of the fungal disease, which has severely impacted several countries across Latin America and the Caribbean over the last decade. (Credit: Zackry Guido)

The researchers said the challenges from coffee leaf rust reflect a trend in disease-driven collapses in recent years in major global commodity markets – such as banana and cocoa – where large-scale farming of single crops and homogenization of plant traits make it easier for diseases to emerge and spread.

They conclude that the Covid pandemic highlights the “interconnectedness” of the global coffee system as both a vulnerability and a source of strength.

“The spread of Covid-19 and coffee leaf rust both reveal the systemic weaknesses and inequalities of our social and economic systems,” says Dr. Rhiney. “We can thus only have a healthy coffee system by building up the well-being of the most vulnerable. It is critical to recognize the key roles of labor and healthy functioning ecosystems in producing and sustaining profits. This means challenging the status quo and the current coffee value chains to better recognize the value produced by small-scale producers, while at the same time uplifting essential but under-recognized parts of the production process, such as human health, food security and sustainability.”

SWNS writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.