Update on coffee growing in China

by JulieCraves on July 2, 2013

In early 2010, I wrote a post outlining coffee production in China. In it, I provided the following figures:

  • China produced about 3600 tons of coffee in 1997.
  • This increased to an estimated 28,000 tons (perhaps up to 40,000 tons) in 2009.

A recent article in the trade journal Global Coffee Review reports that the 2012-13 crop year could be upwards of 60,000 tons, and that the projection for 2019-20 is as much as 200,000 tons. Another estimate gives the 2012 output of Yunnan province (where 98% of arabica coffee is grown) as 82,000 tons. It’s likely that the coffee tonnage and perhaps acreage would have been much higher between 2008 and today had it not been for a severe drought in 2009-2011.  The reservoir of the new Nuozhadu hydroelectric dam in Yunnan, however, can provide irrigation water to local farmers. (Ironically, people displaced by the flooding of their land by the reservoir are being encouraged by the government to become coffee farmers.)

china-coffe-mapAll of this increased production takes lots of land, of course. Experts quoted in the Global Coffee Review piece expressed concern about the environmental impacts of all this planting, as well as a flooding of the market with so much coffee when the plantings being to yield fruit. I’d like to give an update country’s coffee production which fuels both China’s increasing domestic consumption as well as exports.

Coffee farms and deforestation

Although accurate figures out of China are hard to come by, let’s take a look at published reports on land devoted to coffee.  In my previous post, I noted that China planned to increase the land devoted to coffee to 16,000 ha in the next 15 years.  A report* released only a few months after I found that data indicated that as of April 2010, there were already 29,000 ha of coffee planted in Yunnan province alone. As of August 2012, the Coffee Association of Yunnan calculated the area to have grown to nearly 67,000 ha, ahead of even its 2015 goals. We can safely say there is between 40,000 and 70,000 ha of coffee being grown in Yunnan, China now, and that this figure has been and will be growing rapidly.

Nearly all of the coffee grown in China is sun coffee, monocultures of coffee grown without the protection of shade trees and utilizing high levels of chemical fertilizers and pest control. In China, sun coffee plantations are often created from clearing forest or other habitat, even in areas with logging bans. A great piece on the SCAA web site notes that in Pu’er, organic fertilizer is not readily available, the soil is poor, and requires 2 or 3 applications of fertilizer annually.

China is already suffering from severe deforestation, and it is a serious problem in Yunnan province.

Enter Starbucks

Nestlé has been the big player in China, where the majority of coffee consumed is still instant coffee, of which Nestlé has a dominant market share. Due to relatively low altitudes and the threat of coffee leaf rust, Nestlé has distributed a lot of rust-resistant coffee (of the robusta-derived Catimor variety) and has encouraged farmers to plant some shade trees, conserve water, and helped with other ecological endeavors, according to the SCAA piece. They also plan to construct a Nescafé Coffee Center that will include an education center in addition to warehouses and other infrastructure to support their instant coffee empire. Apparently, many of Nestlé’s coffee sustainability activities in China are being done largely under the framework of the ecologically-anemic 4-C standards.  And we know that third-party certifications have been rejected by Nestlé. So while their efforts may be better than nothing, it doesn’t make me optimistic about environmental stewardship in China’s coffeelands.

Meanwhile, in late 2012, Starbucks established a farmer support center in the Pu’er region of Yunnan (others are located in Costa Rica and Rwanda). These centers allow Starbucks to work directly with farmers to improve yield, quality, environmental sustainability, and to help them meet the company’s CAFE Practices.  The company press release specifically mentions a goal of “help[ing] reduce the environmental impact of the region’s coffee-growing activities.” This is perhaps the most promising news out of China regarding coffee production, as assessments of CAFE Practices have shown good compliance with the eco-criteria included in the program.


I’ll just repeat here my wrap-up of my previous post:

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.

*International Trade Center. 2010. The Coffee Sector in China: An Overview of Production, Trade, and Consumption. Technical Paper. Doc. No. SC-10-188.E. 23 pp.

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Revised on October 4, 2017

Posted in Background information,Coffee regions,Starbucks

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