When you hear “China” and “coffee” mentioned in the same sentence, it is usually regarding the booming coffee market in the traditionally tea-drinking country. Less well-known is the fact that coffee is actually grown in China. It is predominantly low-quality arabica used in instant coffee, grown in full sun using high chemical inputs, and the Chinese government is aggressively promoting the expansion of thousands of hectares of coffee production.
While some robusta coffee is grown in China, in Fujian province and on Hainan Island, this post will focus on arabica coffee grown in Yunnan province.
Coffee has been grown in Yunnan since the late 1800s, but on a relatively small scale. There was a resurgence in the late 1960s, but today’s Chinese coffee revival was orchestrated in the 1980s by the Chinese government, the United Nations, and at least one large multinational roaster. Very high import tariffs combined with millions of potential new coffee consuming customers has prompted roasters to source coffee from within the country.
How coffee is grown in China
Coffee is grown in Yunnan in several regions: Dehong, BaoShan, Simao, and Ruili, mostly in western Yunnan along the border with Myanmar. Elevation ranges from 900 to 1600 meters, generally around 1100 to 1200 m. Coffee farms range from small producers and large state-run or privately-owned plantations of over 2000 ha.
All the photographs I have seen of coffee growing in China has been sun coffee. Here is a photo essay on the coffee harvest in China at the Siamaba farm in BaoShan, and a photo of the 1200 ha ManLao River Plantation in the Simao region.
Organic coffee production in China is virtually unknown. China seriously over-uses fertilizers, with coffee being one recipient. A recent paper looking at different fertilization regimes for coffee in Yunnan province  concluded that “higher than routinely applied levels of fertilization are required to optimize coffee plants photosynthetic acclimation and growth” — and photosynthetic acclimation, the paper explains, means the ability to withstand full sun.
High fertilizer inputs are not the only problem. While I was able to find no data relating specifically to coffee, China is the world’s largest user and producer (and exporter) of pesticides, used once again to increase yield, at a huge cost to the environment and human health.
Expansion, deforestation, and biodiversity
Whereas China only produced about 3600 tons of coffee in 1997, in 2009 this figure breached 28,000 tons on 2000 ha. In China’s usual grand form, the plan is to increase the coffee production area to 16,000 ha in the next 15 years. China is already suffering from severe deforestation, and it is a serious problem in Yunnan province. A paper discussing conservation there noted, “The most immediate source of wealth in Yunnan is the rapid liquidation of existing natural resources, particularly forests” .
The Yunnan Hogood (or Hogu) Coffee Company, for instance, planted nearly 4500 ha as of 2007, and this company alone plans to have over 13,000 ha in production by 2012. They are to begin exporting coffee to the U.S. this year. They have contracted with 30,000 farmers, and while a government web site (now defunct) stated that Yunnan Hogood is making these farmers rich, their per capita annual income is $454. This may very well be an improvement over previous incomes (Yunnan is one of China’s poorest areas), but it is still under the poverty level for China. Nestlé also touts that their investment in technical assistance to farmers and their purchases provide steady income to local farmers. This is probably true, but if farmers were being helped to produce high-quality specialty coffee, their incomes would be much greater. These two corporations, by the way, have also been tangled in a trademark dispute.
All this land conversion is taking place in one of the most biodiverse regions in China. Yunnan comprises only 4% of China’s total area, but has more than 18,000 plant species and 1836 vertebrates (over 800 are birds); 112 of China’s bird species only occur in Yunnan . The Yunnan mountains are designated as an important endemic bird area by BirdLife International, where they state that “loss of forest land here appears to be by far the worst in China.” One of the restricted range birds found here is the near-threatened Yunnan Nuthatch, shown on the stamp, another is the endemic White-spectacled Laughingthrush. More fabulous birds of Yunnan can be seen on the great photoblog of John and Jemi Holmes.
China’s arabica coffee is nearly all the catimor variety, which has some resistance to coffee rust due to the robusta genes in its background; it is generally considered low-quality and not specialty grade. Some older varieties do exist but are often plagued by rust and not being promoted.
A few specialty coffee roasters have a presence in China, despite the challenge of finding high-quality coffee and faced with consumers who overwhelmingly drink instant coffee (see below). Starbucks (who has committed $5 million to support education efforts in China) has over 700 stores in the country, and sources its coffee from producers in Baoshan. The South of the Clouds blend includes Chinese-grown coffee and has been offered in cafes in China. That debut came with a remark from a Starbucks spokesman that the company would “ultimately” like to export Chinese coffee worldwide. However, supply currently isn’t high (or good?) enough to even put together a Chinese single origin offering (the South of the Clouds blend contains beans from other countries), and export is dependent on developing a source of “superpremium” arabica beans.
Other North American roasters with cafes in China include Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and Canada’s Blenz Coffee. Roasters from other countries are there as well, all working to steer a tea-drinking culture towards fresh ground coffee.
The role of instant coffee and Nestlé
Nestlé is the big player in China, sourcing all of its Chinese-marketed Arabica coffee from within the country since 1997 and controlling nearly half the entire market share in the country. The coffee Nestlé produces and sells in China is instant coffee, which is typically the most palatable to consumers in tea-drinking nations and dominates Chinese consumption. Add in Kraft’s instant coffee, and these two companies represent 70% of the Chinese coffee market.
Nestlé has invested over $5 million in technical assistance to farmers in Yunnan province. They have sourced all their arabica beans from inside China since 1997 (probably blending with robusta), and in 2006 introduced 100% Yunnan coffee in their in-country NESCAFÉ instant coffee. Given Starbucks’ inability to source a single origin Chinese coffee, this could mean Nestlé has tied up a lot of producers, leases or owns their own plantations, or the beans they source are only suitable for instant. Many of the Chinese NESCAFÉ products aren’t just coffee, but pre-packaged coffee, sugar, and creamer, which are very popular in China. You don’t need good quality coffee for these beverages! For more on the lack of sustainability and quality in instant coffee, see my previous post.
Coffee crisis, round 2?
One need only look next door to Vietnam to see what a no-holds-barred coffee production policy can do to world coffee prices and farmer livelihoods worldwide and the environment. Unfortunately, nearly all the same elements that precipitated the catastrophic coffee crisis of the late 1990s are once again in place: world development agencies and a national government encouraging and subsidizing the planting of huge amounts of coffee which could lead to a glut in supply, large multinational roasters eager to have a source of cheap mediocre coffee, and poor rural minority farmers hoping to get rich. As we have learned, a drop in world coffee prices due to oversupply from Asia means people and habitats suffer all over the world.
Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself.
- A fine overview of the coffee crisis at Coffee Geek — you pick out the parallels
- Chinese farms cause more pollution than factories (Guardian UK)
- Pesticide and environmental health trends in China.
- High pesticide residues threaten China’s food exports.
- Review of Kunming Yunnan coffee by CoffeeCuppers.
- New York Times series on pollution crisis in China; this installment on biodiversity
 Cai, C.-T., Z.-Q. Cai, T.-Q. Yao, and X. Qi. 2007. Vegetative growth and photosynthesis in coffee plants under different watering and fertilization managements in Yunnan, SW China. Photosynthetica 45:455-461.
 Lan, D. and R. Dunbar. 2000. Bird and mammal conservation in Gaoligongshan Region and Jingdong County, Yunnan, China: patterns of species richness and nature reserves. Oryx 34:275-286.
 Yang, Y., K. Tian, J. Hao, S. Pei, and Y. Yank. 2004. Biodiversity and biodiversity conservation in Yunnan, China. Biodiversity and Conservation 13:813-826.