Coffee is in crisis, but local shops have your back

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Climate change is a nebulous dilemma; its ramifications can seem obscure. But there’s at least one tangible effect that will make most Americans shudder: coffee supplies are drying up.

“U.S. consumers should expect much more expensive and lower-quality coffee because of rising temperatures, extreme rainfalls and higher frequency of severe droughts,” Titus O. Awokuse, chairman of the department of agricultural, food and resource economics at Michigan State University told the Los Angeles Times last week.

About 60% of “high-quality coffee species are at risk of extinction because of the negative impacts of climate change,” he added.

Pandemic supply chain disruptions have recently worsened the problem, but product scarcity began decades ago.

“We probably wouldn’t have coffee as it is today if it hadn’t been genetically modified already over the last couple of decades,” Erin Munson, a business partner at Pittsboro’s Aromatic Roasters, told me. “They’ve crossbred species, several species, to try to make them less susceptible to disease and other things.”

But genetic modification can only do so much to stave off the inevitable. Major retailers are starving for product to meet rapacious demand from languid Americans. In turn, costs are climbing. J.M. Smucker, who makes Folgers and Dunkin’ ground coffee, has already announced its prices will be going up, according to the Times.

“It’s definitely going up,” Munson said, “and it’s also definitely not as easy to get some coffees.”

For example, Aromatic is currently low on its decaffeinated beans, which come from Colombia.

“Some coffees like that have been harder to get, harder to source,” Munson said. “The mill there is just not producing as much, so I assume that will probably affect our cost a little bit in the end. It’s going to be more in demand since they’re not doing as much.”

But there’s good news. Local shops such as Aromatic may stay better insulated from the price inflation than major suppliers.

“I think it actually might be harder for them because they regularly get their coffee from certain large operations,” Munson said of the industry’s major players. “And when those large operations take a hit with labor and climate and stuff like that, that’s probably going to hit them harder.”

Local companies, on the other hand, will retain more flexibility and negotiating power.

“Smaller importers can kind of pick and choose where they get coffee from,” Munson said. “They definitely have contracts with certain farms, but it’s not the same scale as somebody like Folgers or Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts. And a lot of times, doing the direct trade with these importers can yield a better price.”

Coffee is not unique in the crop world. Most edible commodities are feeling the stress of a dithering climate. Sugar and wheat are more expensive than ever, along with corn, soybeans, honey and other less ubiquitous products. Across the board, global food prices have risen by about 33% from a year ago, according to the United Nations.

A solution is not immediately apparent, but you can salve the financial repercussions by shopping local.

“I think we’re less affected than the bigger companies because we can adjust if we have to,” Munson said. “It’s not hard for us to do that. We have a lot more leeway than somebody who’s got thousands of stores and a big operation.”

Aromatic Roasters is located at 697 Hillsboro St., Ste. 101, in Pittsboro. The shop sources and roasts “single origin coffee from all over the globe including Ethiopia, Kenya, Burundi, Costa Rica, Honduras, Colombia, Guatemala and Indonesia,” according to its website. In addition, Aromatic created “The Chatham Brew,” the News + Record’s breakfast blend.

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