The Coffee Trail With Simon Reeve

As a certified coffee nerd I can’t help but watch anything that has the word coffee in its title. The Coffee Trail by Simon Reeve whilst not new was a worthwhile watch on BBC4 last night (28/1/18).

Mr. Reeve was visiting Vietnam which is now the world’s second largest coffee producer after Brazil and ahead of Colombia. That statement probably comes as a surprise to most consumers as Vietnamese coffee does not often make an appearance on the Supermarket shelf despite being an exporter of 18% of the world’s coffee.

It’s incredible that they can remain so anonymous in our part of the world which is what makes Mr. Reeve’s programme even more thought provoking.

Despite some positive comments about coffee giving a better return than other produce many of those being interviewed still looked pretty impoverished. On top of that you still have the ordnance left in the ground from the US bombing during the Vietnam War which is still taking a heavy toll in human life. As always it’s remarkable how resilient coffee producers are in the face of such desperate odds.     

As always a few are making vast sums of money. The sight of the huge Nestle plant producing tons of instant coffee must bring a warm feeling to investors and pension funds alike. For the vast majority though, and that includes us, deforestation, climate change, soil erosion and ethnic issues bring an ever darkening cloud over the industry.

The challenge is how do you align the interests of all the stakeholders in this industry?

The Fairtrade movement has helped to organise small producers. The Rainforest Alliance have highlighted environmental issues. There is some great work being done in South-east India to re-build soil fertility. The Café Femenino project is driving some social change. But in the grand scheme of things all this good work is only scratching the surface. It is though important that the surface is scratched and just maybe we may get a “plastic” moment in the coffee industry.

Although Mr. Reeve’s programme talked about planting “Arabica” coffee to try and add value to the crop, this was an over-simplification of the issue. Today we’re seeing an increasing interest in speciality Robusta coffee and given this is the varietal that is grown in Vietnam it would make sense to look at ways to improve the quality.

It is though the price volatility of basic food stuffs that drives me to distraction. Simple supply and demand factors are now overwhelmed by speculation. Post 2008 commodities are now treated like stocks and shares through the introduction of financial instruments such as ETF’s (Exchange traded funds). It’s impossible to turn back the clocks but it’s about time there was a bit of joined up thinking at a global level to ensure that we leave a sustainable planet for the next generation.