First drought, then snow and cold: extreme weather conditions in Brazil are causing coffee prices to rise – also in Germany. The producers try to keep costs low by using massive amounts of pesticides.
Fabio Moreira stands on the edge of his seemingly endless coffee fields and is happy that at least his harvest is going off without a hitch. The administrator of the Fazenda São José, through which the border between the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais runs, has had turbulent months behind him. At the beginning of the year, there was an extreme drought in the Brazilian hinterland, from where the majority of German coffee imports come. Brands such as Tchibo and Lavazza source a large part of their Arabica beans from this region of Brazil. The country is the largest coffee producer in the world. The drought resulted in extremely low water levels in the reservoirs in this area. The consequences of this drought could even be felt in Argentina and Paraguay, where the Paraguay and Paraná rivers were in some cases no longer navigable by ship.
The drought was followed by snow and cold
Fabio frowns when he thinks of the unusually low temperatures that occurred later – in July. Snow fell in many places in the region. Hoar frost covered the hilly landscape. Temperatures around freezing defoliated many coffee plants. In some places, the entire harvest failed. According to estimates, Brazil will therefore be able to export 22 percent less Arabica coffee, which is why the price has already risen significantly – including on German supermarket shelves.Fabio was lucky. He was able to save most of his harvest. “The plants that grow on slopes and are harvested by hand suffer less from frosty temperatures,” explains the Fazenda manager. He was most concerned about the much larger coffee fields that are harvested with a huge blue machine. The plants grow in straight rows on flat terrain, through which the machine laboriously works its way. The bushes under the vehicle are shaken and shaken until the reddish coffee beans are blown through channels into a huge tub.
Use of pesticides
One of Fabio’s most important customers is Tchibo in Germany. He uses numerous pesticides to keep the price for the production of the “Feine Milde” beans low. “We have to use chemicals, for example to combat coffee rust disease,” he explains. “There are many pests that we have to fight with pesticides. Without these fungicides against fungal attack, insecticides against butterflies and herbicides, our cultivation will not work.” He doesn’t want to reveal how many and which pesticides he uses. This is a trade secret. The agroecologist Rogerio Lopes from Minas Gerais criticizes the monocultural coffee cultivation with the use of agrochemicals. “Because of the pesticides, nothing is growing between the rows of coffee trees,” explains Lopes. “In addition, these systemic insecticides and fungicides kill not only the unwanted pests, but also all other insects that feed on coffee plants.”
Criticism of working conditions
The trade unionist Jorge Ferreira deals with the effects of pesticide use on people. He helps chronically ill workers who are unable to work after years of working in the fields. “Since 2018, the Brazilian government has allowed more pesticides every year,” says Jorge. “That is why more agricultural poisons are now being used on the coffee plantations. You can use them to increase production and make higher profits.”Jorge also takes care of victims of the sometimes inhumane working conditions, which are repeatedly uncovered. There are also fazendas near the town of Guaxupé in Minas Gerais, one of the most important centers for exports to Germany, where slave-like working conditions have been found. The “Córrego da Prata” estate has been blacklisted by the Brazilian government for modern slavery because of the bad treatment of 15 workers. In 2018, an underage harvest worker was tracked down there during a check – the workers also stated that they had to work 90 days without a break and usually 16 hours a day. Despite a fine, the production of this fazenda is still in full swing. According to a foreman, they resell the coffee to export companies who ship the beans to Europe.
Problem with monoculture coffee growing
For the agroecologist Lopes, there is another problem with monocultural coffee cultivation in the region. “The agricultural poisons not only stay in the soil and on the plants. They end up in the water cycle and thus in our rivers, in water reservoirs, and in the groundwater.” German consumers should be aware of these consequences, says Lopes.The weather extremes of the past few months have already made the farmer Fabio Moreira look gloomy about the coming year. Because many young plants could not withstand the low temperatures. As a result, many farmers have revised their expectations for the 2022 harvest downwards. They do not expect the coffee price to recover.