Coffee beans lying on a burlap sack map the entire world, but belie the fact that the area suitable for growing coffee beans stands to be reduced by as much as half by 2050, if climate change continues, and the Arabica beans grown in tropical highlands stop receiving the year-round rains that not only enable but nourish their growth. If that isn’t a wake-up call, what is? Some 25 million farmers rely on their production of the beans–most of whom are small farmers–but rising temperatures predicted could radically reduce and effectively circumscribe what those in the know call the “coffee map.”
The sorts of disruption in growing beans that localized drought in those tropical highlands seems almost destined to bring–as the worst dry spell in decades that hit Brazil’s coffee belt, destroying a third of the crop or a decline by a half in coffee bean yields in Tanzania since the 1960s, as temperatures warm and the ground becomes more wet, stand to grow not only the price of the two and a quarter billion cups of coffee we humans consume daily, in what seems like a private experience, meaning that the beans will no longer be so abundant in those burlap bags. In Columbia alone, coffee leaf rust that is the consequence of weather that is both warmer and wetter stand to damage some 60% of the country’s agricultural land by 2050, making for a decreased abundance of beans and ever more removed cup of joe. Indeed, coffee beans are particular enough about growing conditions that to remain optimal conditions of production, the temperature should remain between 18–21°C, and once rising above 23°C, bean quality declines and the plant grows far too fast, noticeably changing its taste, flavor bouquet, and aroma . . . with a detectable shift occurs with only a rise of only half of a degree at the wrong time in the growing season, in ways that could change coffee harvests far sooner that one might expect.
More than any other sector of life, the tremendous growth of coffee consumption over the past decades invites a daily morning exercise of geographic literacy. In hubs of metropolitan coffee drinking, the local origins of beans are invested with a provenance that is supplemented by detailed descriptions of their practices of cultivation. The geographic here primarily signifies or maps to the gastronomic; provenance of coffee has a deeper resonance than the locations of their roasting, and erases the huge distances traversed in their transportation or the local climates in which they were produced. The importation of coffees and costs of coffee farming are naturalized within local coffee bars as a geographic palate, as we’re accustomed to having Sulawesi, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania among the rotating coffees of the week, and in our cups; their names, instead of the once-dominantColumbian or Brazil beans, are part of our routines that are often stripped of geographic signification as place-names–even though they might be better understood as a geographic lesson with climate warming as its subject. Can maps help?
The lopsided distribution of this conversion of toponymy into gastronomy is evident in a map of where this huge rise of coffee consumption and importation has occurred. If coffee beans were introduced to the future United States in the eighteenth century, coffee has become among the leading importers of beans worldwide. Americans now consume some 23 gallons each day (or 22.1 according to Wikipedia)–but declined far below the 48 gallons Americans were said to consume annually in 1946–0r the 62 gallons downed annually in far chillier Finland. Yet it has become part of bloodstream–literally–and an unprecedented (although we lacked earlier metrics) 161,000 folks listed coffee making or serving as a “skill” in 2013.
We might call this the browning of North America, ignoring that the distribution of local blends, pioneered by Peets and popularized by Starbucks, before being refined by Blue Bottle or Four Barrel, masks variations in a topography of coffee drinking in the United States far more variegated than the homogeneous brown of the United States. (The fact that Canada is yellow may seem comforting, but conceals the very urban nature of this social ritual: notice how those brown dots congregate around Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa . . . ) The absurdity of nationally ranking habits of daily caffeination aside (although there’s an academic press title in here somewhere), the most striking aspect of this map is the huge area of the world left in white, shown here only from the equator since no countries below the equator import coffee beans in such quantity.
Indeed, the ten largest coffee importers, mapped in yellow, not brown, suggests an imbalance of equatorial countries whose products tend to wake up folks in northern climes.
The more detailed mapping of the production of coffee by bags of beans, mapped by Oxfam for 2001, showed a nicely skewed data distribution, with those non-growing regions left suitably blank, as if they thirsted for the brown stimulant that came pouring (or steaming) in from equatorial climes:
There is a clear “coffee belt” whose discovery and demarcation the Coffee Grower Association of Hamburg claims responsibility for:
German Coffee Association
And a lot of imported coffee is needed–creating what has indeed long been a pretty big business interest in the US, even before the boutiques of metropolitan areas from the 1990s. Even if, once this huge amount of unroasted beans is divided per capita, rendering regions like Canada and Scandinavia distinctly darker, and measured by consumption of cups/day alone, the geographic distribution looks a bit different in 2011 when mapping coffee consumption per capita in this clickable map of circa 2008:
Which returns us to the interests that all maps conceal. By the alchemy of toponymy, the regions from which the beans themselves derive, of course, come from the very equatorial regions that are the sites of forestry.
This is evident in this far more anodyne map, prepared by someone trained in the school of neo-corporate graphic design:
I appreciate the hand-drawn oval projection, crafted with care in the midwest city of big shoulders, which suggests that if all roads led to Rome, all beans flow to Chicago:
A more informed map might link the cultivation not only to forested regions, but to the very “hot spots” whose local biodiversity is most threatened by global warming, and where the inefficient use of water widespread in coffee cultivation least practical and most pernicious. For it is not only equatorial areas, but from the driest areas on earth:
The overlap of ‘hot spots’ map onto coffee-growing regions alarms; coffee cultivation is widespread in 16 of the 34 most threatened ecosystems. And this is the tip of the iceberg, to use a somewhat mixed metaphor unless one considers iced coffee, of the paradox: privileging the locality of cultivation in maps of caffeine consumption reinforces the fragility of local ecosystems. This is a very different map, speaking map now, from the manner that an earlier cartographical image set the details of consumption as an inevitable but conscious choice, concentrated in one icon, as opposed to the naturalization of growing in isolated pockets of uniform unattractive gray:
Indeed, the conscious coffee drinkers at the Water Footprint in the Netherlands have mapped the severely disproportionate gross virtual water import that results worldwide:
The “flows” of coffee beans might be mapped, if somewhat less legibly, in comparison to those of chocolate, whose parallel commerce from the New World matches it as a popular stimulant from the New World, as Mary Norton reminds us, that in fact was similar in its function to coffee:
In part, this is a local story, with much of the jumping value of java able to be registered in the Port of Oakland, as shown in this bar graph which groups all beans as a whole, independent of locality, but reflects Oakland’s significance as a global hub of the importation of coffee beans.
Let’s recall the lopsided nature of a current map of coffee indulgence that this demand reflects:
and consider the possibility of a re-mapping our daily habits or affectation for caffeination, through this map of the network of coffee distribution and consumption, removed from most familiar geographic categories. The schematic map is courtesy San Jose-trained Roxanne Pasibe:
In the initial graphic, the beans naturally drop to the ground, and into our bags. Let’s try to map how they come to get there, and into our cups.