A Dark Bitter Powder - Episode Transcript

In this fourth episode of A History of Coffee, Jonathan and James explore how the popularity of instant coffee dramatically alters the balance of power amongst coffee growing countries. Coffee as a global commodity takes on a life of its own, sweeping millions of farmers into a race to the bottom.

James Harper: So Jonathan, I want you to imagine that aliens come down to earth, you know, in the big flying saucers.

Professor Jonathan Morris: Okay.

James Harper: And the reason they're on earth is because they want to drink some coffee. And right now we're in the 1930s, they hover over New York and then they get out these giant vacuum cleaners, which begins sucking.

Professor Jonathan Morris: Yeah.

James Harper: And the thing is that tuned to suck only coffee beans. And so every roasted coffee bean in the world get sucked up into like this giant spaceship and then they brew a coffee and drink it.

Professor Jonathan Morris:Wow.

James Harper: This is a world blend in the 1930s. Uh, wonder what the cup would taste like.

Professor Jonathan Morris:Got you.

James Harper: And now if we were to fast forward, you know, almost a hundred years to last year, what are those aliens came back to worth and did the same thing?

Professor Jonathan Morris:Yeah.

James Harper: Sucked up all the roasted coffee beans. Made a world blend. What would that cup tastes like? And how would it compare to the 1930s cup?

Professor Jonathan Morris:Okay. James great thought experiment, but let's try it in real life. I got my friend Colin Smith. Smith's Coffee to roast us up a 1930s blend and a 2020 blend.

James Harper: So Jonathan two little silver bags came in the post one label, 1930, the other label, 2020.

Professor Jonathan Morris:Yeah

James Harper: And I've just grown them from my Comandante brewed them as a V60. And I have them in two little wineglasses side by side right. Now

Professor Jonathan Morris:I've put mine through the Sage grinder and I've made them into French presses.

James Harper: Okay. Let's taste.

Professor Jonathan Morris: Should we start in the thirties?

James Harper: It's a bit nutty. Yeah. A baggy note to it.

Professor Jonathan Morris: Overwhelming characteristic is blandness.

James Harper: I mean is not a bad coffee.

Professor Jonathan Morris:You take it in a hotel breakfast room.

James Harper: So what is in this 1930s blend?

Professor Jonathan Morris: Number one, overwhelmingly 60% Brazilian Santos.

James Harper: So Brazil producing most of the coffee in the world in the 1930s. Let's fast forward to the world blend of last year.

Professor Jonathan Morris:Okay.

James Harper: It's punchy. And I can get that distinct Robusta flavor in this coffee.

Professor Jonathan Morris:Absolutely. Okay. So Robusta is another species of coffee and currently of the Robusta and the blend you're drinking, reflecting the world situation. 40% of it is made up of Robusta

James Harper: So 40% of world coffee production last year was not Arabica coffee, which was the only coffee variety found in the 1930s blend. But you're saying that as of last year, 40% of all coffee grown. Was not Arabica, but Robusta

Professor Jonathan Morris:That's exactly what I'm saying.


James Harper: And in this episode, we're going to be exploring as Robusta comes onto the world stage. No one government can control coffee anymore. The system gets so big that it moves in its own direction, pulled by market forces.

Professor Jonathan Morris: The history of this is the history of attempts to control and was attempt breaking down.

James Harper: It sets us up for what I would describe as a pretty bleak situation at the end of the 20th century where certifications and even specialty coffee, think that, Hey, we can come to the rescue here.

Professor Jonathan Morris:I think if we want to understand the last 20 years of the specialty revolution, then, uh, you've got to start with understanding this period and what's happening in the commodity market.


James Harper: I'm James Harper, the creator of Filter Stories, a coffee documentary podcast.

Professor Jonathan Morris:I'm Jonathan Morris, professor of history, author of Coffee: A Global History.

James Harper: And this is A History of Coffee, a six episode series, where we explore how a tiny psychoactive seed changed the world and shapes our lives today.

Musical interlude

James Harper: So Jonathan, let's pick up again from where we last left it in the story. We were at the tail end of the industrialization of coffee, where Brazil was producing vast amounts of coffee, Americans' drinking lakes of the stuff. And by the 1930s, Brazilians were burning it, dumping it in the sea. So what comes out of this vast oversupply of coffee?

Professor Jonathan Morris:Well, Among the many things that the Brazilians tried was they commissioned a Swiss company to see if they could do something with coffee powder that could be preserved and kind of used in new ways. And then in 1938, Came up with what we now know as Nescafé soluble coffee. Now, let me be clear, not the first time that someone's produced soluble coffee.What's different is that it's instant coffee done on an industrial scale. And the other thing to be blunt is it's sort of palatable.


James Harper: Okay. How do you make instant coffee?

Professor Jonathan Morris: Here's the very simple answer. You make the coffee, you then either evaporate and cool the coffee. Or you spray the coffee around a freezing tower

James Harper: Right.

Professor Jonathan Morris:And wait for it to form down into little granules. You then break up the frozen coffee, a bit like it was a tray of toffee. They’re now dry and they’ll recompose when water is added to them.


James Harper: Jonathan it's hard to overstate, just how popular instant coffee becomes. I mean, I read things here and there that suggest that half of all coffee produced ends up being instant coffee, but why is instant coffee so popular?

Professor Jonathan Morris:It’s so damn convenient, particularly if you think you know nothing about coffee. Now, if you all consume that, and you're pretty scared of coffee and actually lots of consumers are.And as we said in the previous episode, a lot of advertising was designed to make consumers scared of coffee in the sense of, you know, don't trust anything but us don't try it yourself. Don't do this. Don't do that. Just trust us. Well, this is the ultimate version of that. Yeah. And indeed, that's how they market it. You know, Nescafe as a beautiful piece of marketing it’s going mum with a little girl and the girl is making the coffee because it's, child's play. It's now child's play to make coffee. So that's simple. It is that simple, or there's a great story about Britain and the takeoff of instant coffee coincides with the launch of commercial television

James Harper: Hmm

Professor Jonathan Morris:And why? Well, of course you can make a cup of coffee in the time that the adverts are on, because all you got to do is boil the kettle and sling the water on your instant coffee. And this is supposed to have also pushed the invention of the teabag. As tea manufacturers realized they needed to come up with something that would enable them to win back some market share because they, you know, otherwise everyone's going to switch into coffee.The other thing that it spawns is. It's much easier to go to a non traditional coffee market with a product like that and say, Hey coffee, it's dead simple. Just add water than it is to go and teach people how to use a French press or a filter, tell grind their own coffee any of that kind of stuff


James Harper: So of course, instant coffee. It's easy to use, but also it's so much cheaper per cup.

Professor Jonathan Morris:Correct.

James Harper: So there's a back of the envelope maths. If you buy a pack of roasted ground coffee in the supermarket, your cup of coffee in the morning will be about 25 cents. But that same cup of coffee with instant coffee costs, 5 cents

Professor Jonathan Morris:Oh

James Harper: Five times less.

Professor Jonathan Morris:Yeah.

James Harper: And at 5 cents a cup of coffee, I'm going to go out on a limb and say, a lot of the world can now afford a cup of instant coffee at least once in a while

Professor Jonathan Morris: Yes, absolutely.

Musical interlude

James Harper: So instant coffee. It is now incredibly popular. What kind of coffee is in there?

Professor Jonathan Morris:Instant coffee as we said the aim is cheapness. Cheap coffee. Robusta coffee.

James Harper: Now, Robusta itself is a pretty hardy little plant. It can grow at much lower altitudes. It also produces a lot more coffee, cherry, but why not Arabica coffee?I mean, I know Arabica coffee made up the majority of our world blend in 1930s. Why can't the world continue growing Arabica? Why does this switch to Robusta?

Professor Jonathan Morris:This is a critical point in the world. History of coffee as Brazil became that big industrial producer

James Harper: Right

Professor Jonathan Morris:Asia, the other big producer, soar it's coffee growing pretty much wiped out by coffee rust disease.

James Harper: And what is coffee leaf rust?

Professor Jonathan Morris:It's a fungus and it kills them slowly. And as a result, Asia went from maybe producing about a third of the world's coffee in 1850, perhaps a bit more to producing pretty much zilch.

James Harper: Wow.

Professor Jonathan Morris:So the only way to get production back there was to find a rust resistant hardier form of coffee.What happened was they adopted Robusta and this is what is used to replant. So it's not switching from Arabica. It's adding to Arabica

James Harper: Right?

Professor Jonathan Morris:And it's adding to the total stock of world coffee. So, if you look at the amount of coffee grown in the world, now it's much, much higher than in the 1930s, but 40% of that coffee is Robusta

James Harper: Wow.

Musical interlude:

James Harper: So here we have Robusta this hardy little coffee plant. It can grow at much lower elevations. So, who steps up on the world stage to grow it?

Professor Jonathan Morris: I'll tell you why it's very popular, James and that's in West Africa

James Harper: Right

Professor Jonathan Morris: So these post-colonial countries. Look two coffee and Robusta coffee as a way of getting an export crop quickly that they can get money for.

James Harper: Right

Professor Jonathan Morris:So, I mean, Ivory Coast is a good example. The Ivory Coast president Houphouët-Boigny was a coffee grower. I'm going to say what he said: “dear Africans, dear Ivorians, don't just vegetate in your bamboo huts, grow coffee and make money. He was saying, you know, grow coffee. This one enrich us and it will enrich you.”And I've got to say it did.

James Harper: Huh

Professor Jonathan Morris:Houphouët-Boigny, he sort of was on the side of the coffee grower. The way of measuring that is that he gave the coffee growers back most of the price for the coffee that was obtained on the export market.

James Harper: Oh, that's interesting.

Professor Jonathan Morris: Yeah. This is the critical thing because all of these countries basically use a scheme whereby all the coffee It has to be sold to the state by the farmer and the state exports search, you know, through various boards.

James Harper: Right

Professor Jonathan Morris:Now that's okay. If the state gives you a good price for your coffee.

James Harper: Right

Professor Jonathan Morris:But it's disastrous when the state decides it wants more and more of the money and it doesn't give it, you back.

James Harper: Do we have an example of that?

Professor Jonathan Morris: We absolutely have an example of that Uganda. Now, Uganda is actually in East Africa and post-independence Uganda. Began again, growing a lot of rivers to coffee.

James Harper: Okay

Professor Jonathan Morris:Now that was fine. And Uganda developed quite a strong reputation for good Robusta. Then the guy called  Idi Amin came to power in Uganda. This is the guy who was just a horrendous dictator. I mean, he tortured people all the time in most appalling ways that I really wouldn't want to describe. So in the seventies, when, you know, I mean, as a, he is at the height of his power, he is giving those peasants 20% of the price of the coffee that he is receiving.

Piano Professor Jonathan Morris:I would say there was zero point in growing coffee. Except of course, if you didn't grow coffee and surrender it to the state, you would find yourself in unbelievable troubles in other ways.

James Harper: Wow.

Professor Jonathan Morris:So it broke the coffee system and Uganda.

James Harper: So what happened to coffee growing in Uganda?

Professor Jonathan Morris:Declined enormously and lost quality.It's only rarely in the 21st century that Uganda has started to really revive as a coffee growing country.


James Harper: Okay. So Jonathan, right. Africa steps up into the world stage. And it becomes a large producer of roasted coffee

Archival audio: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.

James Harper: Now, of course, we're talking about height of the cold war

Robert F Kennedy: Of the Soviet military buildup on the Island of Cuba

James Harper: We had nuclear missiles on Cuba and the United States.

Robert F Kennedy: Each of these missiles is capable of striking Washington, DC. The Panama canal.

James Harper: Okay, there were civil Wars going on in central America. Everyone was talking about, you know, the left-wing revolutionaries. So how does this all play out in the world of coffee?

Professor Jonathan Morris:Basically, what happens is that the Latin American producers and their governments are not afraid to use that and the very real threat that they feel they're under to try and persuade the rest of the world and particularly the United States to pay them better prices for coffee

James Harper: Huh?

Professor Jonathan Morris:There's a Colombian Senator, who gets up after the Cuban revolution and speaks to, I think it's the US Senate. And he says, if you don't pay as good prices for our coffee, God help us all, the masses will become one great Marxist revolutionary army that will sweep us all into the sea.

James Harper: Wow.

Professor Jonathan Morris: This is the language that they are using back at the US to say, listen, you've got to stump up here. Otherwise we're in trouble. And if we're in trouble, you're ultimately in trouble now.

James Harper: Wow

Professor Jonathan Morris:You mentioned the Cuban missile crisis, right? So the big outcome of this there's something called the international coffee agreement effectively It allows producer countries to create a cartel.

James Harper: Jonathan quickly, like what is a cartel?

Professor Jonathan Morris:So cartel is a group of producers that between them control enough of the market. So instead of being competitive, a cartel basically says, look, if we produce most of the world's, whatever, we can actually set the price and you're going to have to take it.

James Harper: And that's what happens in oil among OPEC countries.They say, Hey, the price of oil is too low. Let's just produce a lot less. The world needs our oil. They're going to pay a lot more for it.

Professor Jonathan Morris:Yeah. You pay the price that we're going to ask for, or we won't give you the oil. Now American politicians are not usually very favorable to cartels, but this one is approved by the US and becomes almost central to us foreign policy.

James Harper: Unbelievable.

Professor Jonathan Morris:When do they push it through Congress? Right. With the Cuban missile crisis, because that's exactly, you know, the kind of incentive to say, well, Hey, yeah, you probably do need to do this because otherwise we really could be in trouble.

James Harper: So basically coffee producing countries came together and said, we are going to be restricting output by the way America, this is not good for Americans because now you're going to have to spend more for your coffee, but you know what?That's a small price to pay, to not have revolutionaries flooding across the border

Professor Jonathan Morris:But you've exactly hit it on that though. And yeah, the International Coffee Organization within the context of the cold war is seen as an American sponsor and institution because the American foreign policy says, you know, we cannot have Marxist inspired governments in Latin America.We cannot have these people on our borders. So yeah, we've got to do something to just keep that price of coffee, which just keeps the economies of these countries. In a stable enough orbit that they shouldn't turn communist


Professor Jonathan Morris:Throughout the 1980s, Rachel, during the Reagan years. And through all that period, the us still props up the ICA

James Harper: Reagan himself, the founder of Reaganomics props up the ICA, a cartel, which is bad for American consumers.

Professor Jonathan Morris:Absolutely. But the thing about that, James is as soon as the cold war is over. Bang! Down It goes no more renewal of the ICA

James Harper:  As soon as the Soviet Union collapses.

Professor Jonathan Morris: So as soon as the Soviet Union collapses, then, so you don't as the ICA collapse.


James Harper: Okay. So the ICA is predominantly a cartel for Arabica coffee production, right?

Professor Jonathan Morris: So this is an interesting one. So the ICA. Organized its internal democracy by giving the biggest countries in terms of production, the biggest number of votes

James Harper: Right

Professor Jonathan Morris:So Brazil gets a base number of votes followed by Colombia. And essentially if Brazil and Colombia agree on something, it's pretty much that's it.

James Harper: Right.

Professor Jonathan Morris:The other thing to understand about this, James is that when they come to drawing the quota, they draw up four different types of coffee and the quota for them. And those four different types are given the following names. Brazilian naturals. That's the biggest category by and large, therefore just sun dried, preserving commodity coffee. Then what they call Colombian Milds, which are Arabicas predominantly Colombia with the best sort of taste, the ones that you use to kind of perk your blend. Other milds, which include the other Arabica things. And then Robusta


Professor Jonathan Morris:So Robusta is your last category, Robusta is the cheapest category

James Harper: Huh

Professor Jonathan Morris:Right? And Robusta is locked in a cheap price. Now it's locked in a cheap price, which is substantively below Arabica

James Harper: Right

Professor Jonathan Morris:Robusta is literally the poor cousin of Arabica.

James Harper: So you're saying right from the get-go a lower price is codified into the cartel for all concerned. Robusta is an inferior product. Thank you very much.

Professor Jonathan Morris:Yes, exactly.


James Harper: Okay. So Jonathan, I wanna take us now to the early nineties and we have a much sadder state of affairs on the coffee market.

Professor Jonathan Morris:Yeah.

James Harper: I mean, first things first that international coffee agreement is dead. But what does the death of the ICA, the international coffee agreement? What does it do to coffee prices?

Professor Jonathan Morris: Well, allow me to give you a stat. Okay? 1984 to 1988. The overall price for coffee per pound. Using prices at the time. $1.34.

James Harper: Okay. $1.34 per pound for coffee in the mid-eighties

Professor Jonathan Morris: 1989 to 93. After the ending of the agreement, 77 cents.

James Harper: Jeez. Yeah, just collapse.

Professor Jonathan Morris: There's your crisis.And that leaves many coffee farmers to indeed leave for land. It leads to great poverty. It leads therefore to manage, to migrate, to leads to political instability. And you can see why, I mean, what's that this fad 50% fall. Isn't it pretty much?

James Harper: Yeah. I mean a dollar 34 to 77 cents? Could you imagine going to, let's say a quarter of the people, you know, in the country in which you live and then all of a sudden, you know, slash their incomes by half what's that going to do?

Professor Jonathan Morris:Yeah, exactly.

Musical interlude

James Harper: So Jonathan, that crash in the coffee price in the early nineties. I mean, it was basically driven by the ICA falling apart, but then just 10 years later, the coffee price crashes again. But this time a lot of people blame one specific country.

Professor Jonathan Morris:I was at a coffee conference in the early 2000s where we had farmers from central America. That was the height of the coffee price crisis. And so he said to this guy, what's your biggest problem? And he just stops at Vietnam and sat down.

Musical interlude

James Harper: So Jonathan why did this man from Colombia stand up in the audience and say, Vietnam is the problem? What had happened with Vietnam and coffee by the year 2000

Professor Jonathan Morris:Vietnam as a regime discovered coffee as a way of solving a particular problem, it was a problem about post-war pacification.

Musical interlude

James Harper: Let's go to the end of the Vietnam war. We're talking what? Early seventies.

Professor Jonathan Morris:Yeah

James Harper: Let's say you're a small Vietnamese peasant farmer. What's going on for them?

Professor Jonathan Morris:We need to think about two sets of peasant farmers here, James, the peasant farmers who are actually living in the area that we now call the central Highlands.

James Harper: Okay.

Professor Jonathan Morris: The war has basically been fought over this area.

James Harper: Wow.

Professor Jonathan Morris: So they have now been occupied by where the North Vietnamese and the North Vietnamese don't trust them.

James Harper: Huh? Oftentimes the Vietnam war is seen as, you know, America versus Vietnam. Yeah. But it's actually a civil war

Professor Jonathan Morris:It's very much a civil war because what you have is a population in the central Highlands region. So these people have probably little loyalty to either regime. The South Vietnamese regime was fairly corrupt clipped tactic state. The North Vietnamese regime is this communist socialist operation. These people rarely, the original inhabitants are probably have very little loyalty to oversight, but their land that gets destroyed and fought through that they're getting the American bombs, that they're getting the occupation from the North that they're getting treated pretty appallingly by both sides because neither side trust them. And I'm afraid it gets no better for them. Once the war is officially over, because what happens is that the new Vietnamese government that's to say, you know, the North Vietnamese government

James Harper: Right?

Professor Jonathan Morris:Because it doesn't trust them. It resettles that land with a load of lot more, supposedly loyal peasantry moves them down and sets up these big agricultural cooperatives, the kind of state collective farms. And that's where they start using coffee as one of those crops, that's on these farms


James Harper: You know, imagine you're a North Vietnamese peasants and you know, the wash has finished and the government is like, Hey, come to the middle of Vietnam. Here's some land, here's some coffee trees plant this coffee, go for it.

Professor Jonathan Morris:Let me correct you, right. Okay. So James, the first thing is that it's not nearly as nice as that.

James Harper: Oh

Professor Jonathan Morris:Okay. These people are transplanted in. I'm not sure that they have that much choice now, given that they probably have very little resource, then they'll probably take it.

James Harper: Okay.

Professor Jonathan Morris:And the idea is that from the government, is that there'll be grateful. For having just simply the sort of, you know, economic security of being on the farm

James Harper: Huh?

Professor Jonathan Morris:Effectively farm employee, a state employee working on a farm.


James Harper: And where does Vietnam sell this coffee? Because you know, the North Vietnamese regime is a communist regime. I mean, I can imagine a communist, Vietnamese government having a seat, with America. At the ICA.

Professor Jonathan Morris: Yeah. There is a growing market of those estates that are not part of the ICA that are, you know, trying to improve their consumer experience for their citizens. So I'm thinking of countries like East Germany, the Eastern Soviet block and so forth.

James Harper: So, let me be clear. This North Vietnamese peasant ends up in the central Highlands, grows coffee, gives the coffee to the government because it's part of a collectivized system. The Vietnamese government then goes onto the world market being like, who wants this coffee? They're outside of the ICA. They can't sell within that system. So they say, well, who's not part of the ICA? Ah, Let's say, you know, East Germany

Professor Jonathan Morris:Exactly.

James Harper: Part of the Soviet sphere of influence. They need a coffee let’s sell to them.

Professor Jonathan Morris: But then remember of course, that from the early nineties, things begin to change. The ICA falls apart, Vietnam starts to liberalizing its economy. And by liberalizing its economy, it starts transferring through various schemes, coffee growing, and land into private hands. And the outcome of that is that by 2000, 90% of the coffee growing land in Vietnam is now in private hands. So it's a major transformation.


James Harper: So Vietnam privatizes its production over Robusta coffee. What does that do to how much Robusta coffee it grows?

Professor Jonathan Morris:To give you some scale for Vietnam, 1990 to

  1. The country produced. 1.3 million bags of coffee. That's a hell of a lot more than the probably 150 bags. It was producing the seventies, but it's not a massive amount.2000 to 2001. It's at 14.8 million bags, 2015 to 2016, it’s at 28.7 million bags.

James Harper: What does this mean? What does that even mean?

Professor Jonathan Morris: Well, what that means to give you a sentence at 28.7 million bags, Vietnam produces more coffee than the entirety of Africa.

James Harper: Wow

Professor Jonathan Morris:At that point. And what it means in terms of Vietnam status is Vietnam is the second biggest coffee producer in the world.

Musical interlude:

James Harper: Now of course we have these price crises in the early nineties and the late nineties. Do they affect Vietnam?

Professor Jonathan Morris:Robusta experiences that price crisis in a way that's even greater than Arabica Robusta price falls from 83 cents in 1998 to 28 cents in 2001

Musical interlude:

James Harper: 28 cents. For a pound of coffee, that's literally less than 1 cent per cup of coffee.

Professor Jonathan Morris: In the central Highlands, we know that probably 30% of the population at that time actually suffered from hunger and malnutrition.

Musical interlude:

James Harper: And so, you know, let's go back into the room where you were at, where that Colombia farmer stood up. And I said, what's your problem? And you know, Colombian farmer said, Vietnam.

Professor Jonathan Morris:Yeah.

James Harper: Why was he pointed to Vietnam as the problem?

Professor Jonathan Morris: He's angry because the huge expansion of production in Vietnam. Means that the overall price of coffee falls and falls significantly disastrously in fact, and because if you're a massive coffee roaster, then you will buy the cheap coffee and then blend it or do things with it. So for example, Robusta coffee. One thing you can do to make it slightly more palatable is steam clean it.

James Harper: How does that work?

Professor Jonathan Morris:You stuck the coffee in a tower and you introduced steam through it.

James Harper: Hmm.

Professor Jonathan Morris: It cleans it up a bit. Makes it a little bit more palatable. So to get back to our farmer, his problem is that with all this coffee available from Vietnam and with it being used as part of a blend to reduce the price of the blend in the final product, then his coffee is worth less. There's less demand for it. And Nestle drops the price. There'll be less and less demand for it.

James Harper: So you're saying that this Robusta coffee, it is, for example, being steam cleaned because the flavors aren't of the same quality as an Arabica coffee, I mean, that's why you got to steam clean it to kind of take out the undesirable flavors.

Professor Jonathan Morris: Yeah. Commodity Robusta does not taste great. I mean, the very fact that we could think about steam cleaning, a load of coffee tells you how much it needs improvement

James Harper: Right. And big coffee roasters. They roast coffee by the metric ton and what they need it's the classic capitalism. Reduce your costs.


How do you do it? Well, reduce the cost of your beans. So. Here's the Arabica price at X and here's the Robusta it's lower than X it's cheaper.

Professor Jonathan Morris:Yeah.

James Harper: So that's why this Colombia farmer was so angry is because his commodity Arabica coffee was now competing with this much cheaper Robusta coffee, which had an inferior taste, but the end customers didn't know the difference

Professor Jonathan Morris: In essence, yes, because the end customer just buys the can off the shelf.

James Harper: But this is it to me. Like didn't drinkers notice that the quality of coffee had gone from commodity Arabica to steam clean Robusta didn't anyone notice it? They didn't want to like pick up a fuss.

Professor Jonathan Morris:Actually, no.


Professor Jonathan Morris:And indeed, throughout the end of the century, it's almost like a little game of chicken here as big rows to sort of put more and more Robusta into their blend and see if they can get away with it. What will be the price taste, trade off

James Harper: Wow

Professor Jonathan Morris:Will their consumers really notice?

Musical interlude

James Harper: I mean, Jonathan, if we just take a step back and look at the broad historical trends here, I just think back to the Yemeni farmer on the mountain side, growing their, you know, delicious coffee and then along come Europeans, slavery that dramatically lowers the price. Again, you fast forward a bit. You have the emergence of Brazil industrialization.The cutting of rainforests, the price goes down, but who's the victim here? Well, arguably the environment and then you fast forward again, what a hundred years or so instant coffee comes onto the world stage instant coffee made mostly with Robusta coffee.

Professor Jonathan Morris: Yeah.

James Harper: And Robusta can be produced cheap. The ICA even locked in a cheap price for it.We have almost the entire world able to afford a cup of coffee.

Professor Jonathan Morris:Yes.

James Harper: Then the cold war ends and the ICA has fallen apart.

Professor Jonathan Morris:Yeah.

James Harper: Vietnam is now on the stage as a, you know, the second largest coffee producer in the world. And it's now got to a point where, you know, governments are unable to coordinate amongst themselves to keep the coffee price high.

Professor Jonathan Morris:Yeah.

James Harper: So the supply side has now taken on a life of its own.

Musical interlude

James Harper: And now let's look at the consuming side. Let's say you're a consumer of coffee in America. You know, in the nineties, you go down to your supermarket and you know, there's a coffee presented to you. You can choose different brands, but they all come from this commodity system. Consumers habits are to, you know, maybe put milk and sugar into a coffee. So it really doesn't matter as much to them what those flavors are in the cup.

Professor Jonathan Morris: And the other thing to add here, James is of course, you know, you get habituated to the coffee you grew up with as it were, or the coffee that you habitually drink. So that becomes for you the taste of coffee.

James Harper: But what that means is that as long as consumers think that coffee is coffee and it's interchangeable, then there's really no one who can control this global commodity system of production and consumption.And what that means is that the money you can earn as a coffee farmer is at the complete mercy of a market, which has a life of its own.And if you are one of the millions of small holder coffee farmers who grow the majority of coffee in the world, you live in a developing country, you have very low education. You have very few ways of making money outside of coffee. And if the system by itself ends up in a place or coffee prices are low and you are not earning enough money to support your family, there's not much you can do about it.

Musical interlude

Professor Jonathan Morris: I think that you could sum it up with this dilemma, you’re a coffee producer, your income. Is declining because the price is dropping your response, which seems rational is to grow more coffee. If I can only make a one sentence out of 2 cents on my coffee per pound, then I need to grow twice as much coffee.But of course, what you're doing is just further growing the world's supply of coffee, which further suppresses the price, because I could always go even more now to look for somebody else who will do it cheaper.

James Harper: This is a race to the bottom.

Professor Jonathan Morris:Absolutely.

James Harper: And this is kind of scary because this coffee system has a life of its own now. And are we comfortable with this being a race to the bottom?

Musical interlude

Professor Jonathan Morris:The reaction to that that we'll see in the last sort of 20 years is what we're going to talk about in the next two episodes.

James Harper: We are going to look at attempts by people who don't like this system as it is to change it.

Professor Jonathan Morris:We're looking at the ways in which people have been desperately seeking sustainability.

James Harper: So thank you for listening to this fourth episode of a history of coffee. If you were interested in also tasting the 1930s and then 2020 blend that we tasted at the top of the episode, we could actually try and organize that with our friend Colin Smith, over at Smith's Coffee to get in touch on social media, I'm @FilterStoriesPodcast

Professor Jonathan Morris: I'm @CoffeeHistoryJM

James Harper: And we'll try and organize something for you.

Professor Jonathan Morris:While you're there, check out my book, Coffee a Global History.And can I remind people that I'm offering a copy of the book to anyone who has dropped a review of the podcasts, send us a screenshot and we'll put you into a drawer and you'll get a free copy of the book.

James Harper: Don't forget to send that screen grab to me hello@filterstories.org. This podcast was produced by yourself and myself and I wrote and played the piano music.

Professor Jonathan Morris: Thank you everyone for listening and we'll see you in the next episode.

Musical interlude:

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