I Can Live with Peak Oil, but Peak Coffee is a Dealbreaker

News from Green Options Media via the blogspot EcoWorldly suggests that coffee addicts in Western nations may soon face shortages.

I don’t know about you, but for me this is a dealbreaker. I can face down Monday mornings, face up to a recession, face the fact that my Mustang is now a shiny dinosaur, face my boss on her worst-hair day and even face the statistical probability that one member of my large, extended family may turn to a life of crime. I can’t face the idea of a morning without coffee, and may have to spend the rest of my life hiding under the covers if it happens. Adaptation is a skill best mastered by the young.

For those of you who don’t drink the brown beverage, a short history. Coffee (and chocolate) was first introduced by Arab traders in the middle of the 15th century, initially in Italy and then gradually across the rest of Europe. Though it wasn’t until the 16th century that coffee became popular, sparking the introduction of coffeehouses, first in Italy and later in England.

Interestingly enough, the Renaissance followed much the same time frame and path, springing up in the city states of medieval Italy in about 1500 and spreading rapidly to Europe like a viral explosion of art, culture and ideas. It was also the greatest explosion of trade and commerce since the Romans conquered Carthage in 146 BC and spread their influence across most of Europe, as far north as the British Isles and as far west as Germany (not counting Asia Minor).

Coincidence? I think not. The world, which had been sleeping throughout the deadly dull Medieval Period (or Middle Ages), got a shot of caffeine and came instantly awake, giving birth to such remarkable individuals as Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rabelais, Cervantes and Shakespeare.

In this century, the 21st (2000-2999), the forthcoming coffee crisis is partially due to the way coffee is grown. Brazil is reportedly in the more productive year of a two-year cycle, meaning next year’s crop will be smaller by about 132,000 pounds.

Brazil and Columbia, two major coffee growers, both produce primarily Arabica beans, which have the most robust flavor of all the varieties (Arabica, Robusta, Liberica and Excelsa, in order of quality).

Neither country will be able to meet next year’s demand, and Columbia’s planned expansion won’t generate beans or income for at least three more years, which is the time it takes a coffee plant to mature and produce fruit.

Expansion implies more deforestation in sensitive rainforest habitats, and shade-growing techniques that provide habitat for birds and other wildlife, as well as coffee, are likely to be abandoned in favor of full-sun plantations to speed and boost harvests.

This means the good stuff, Arabica, will either become prohibitively expensive or simply unavailable to most consumers, and coffee lovers will have to subsist on cheaper, less potent and less flavorful lowland varieties like Liberica and Excelsa. I’ve had both, and prefer burnt tires soaked in cold dishwater.

We may not be able to avoid Peak Coffee, but we can do our part to protect the regions that grow it by buying only shade-grown coffee when we can afford it. We can also improve the lives of small plantation owners by buying Fair Trade coffee.

Ultimately, in a world of rising populations and decreasing arable land, we may have to settle for one perfect cup of coffee a day as opposed to multiple cups. Expect Starbucks to double its already-astronomical prices and the city of Seattle to erupt in chaos. Otherwise, the world will adapt, as shortages of everything from coffee to oil teach us to live smaller.

As for me, I’m going to stay under my blankets. Please don’t wake me until it’s time to smell the coffee.

Disclosure: I don’t own shares in either Fair Trade or shade grown coffee plantations.

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