Will Bolsonaro destroy Brazil’s coffee business if re-elected?

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Will Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro destroy Brazil’s coffee business if he wins re-election?

If you’re properly celebrating National Coffee Day in the U.S., chances are you have Brazil to thank for that morning (afternoon, evening) jolt.

Brazil — the largest producer of coffee in the world and America’s primary source of coffee beans — will export 64.3 million 60-kilogram bags of coffee beans this year alone, accounting for over 30 percent of the global share.

The country dominates an industry that is well into the billions of dollars (somewhere between $5 billion and $10 billion depending on which numbers you’re looking at) and is expected to grow by nearly 12 percent in the next three years.

And what about other coffee-producing countries? Their success depends on Brazil’s bean crop. If Brazil has a poor bean production year, that leaves a wider space for other countries’ growers in the industry.

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“Is Brazil doing bad or doing well? That’s exactly how we know we’ll be selling our harvest,” said Federico Ceballos-Sierra, a coffee and rural development researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who grows coffee with his father on his small farm in Colombia.

It’s for precisely these reasons that so much of the coffee-producing world (and the coffee-drinking world) will be closely watching the results this Sunday of Brazil’s presidential election — between incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula.

The two politicians have “two opposing visions for agriculture in Brazil,” Ceballos-Sierra said, which could potentially change the shape of Brazil’s robust coffee industry in the short term. And long-term, their starkly different views on environmental protection may affect the world’s coffee market — not just Brazil.

The business of coffee

Bolsonaro is all about big business. Throughout his presidency, he’s favored larger-scale companies over smaller farms and local growers. When it comes to coffee-growing, the larger-scale operations tend to be on razed, flat land that, with no canopy for shade, forces large firms to use pesticides harmful to the environment, said Ceballos-Sierra. It’s called sun-grown coffee and grows much faster, allowing them to produce larger quantities.

Lula, on the other hand, has championed support for smaller, local farmers, including Indigenous growers and farmers from communities built by formerly enslaved people — demographics, he says, Bolsonaro has ignored.

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These smaller coffee farms grow the crop in hilly, well-foliaged biodiverse regions, said Andrew Hetzel, an international coffee market and value chain specialist. This is a much more environmentally friendly way to grow coffee beans, said Ceballos-Sierra.

But even if Lula wins, Ceballos-Sierra said, despite his support for small farmers, he also understands and supports the big businesses that are the backbone of Brazil’s hold on the global coffee market. But he is proposing to do it in a different and long-term sustainable way — which means incorporating a more pro-environmental approach.

Lula (who served as Brazil’s president from 2003 to 2011) says he wants sustainability to support economic growth and public-private partnerships.

In other words, Ceballos-Sierra said, Lula would likely curb further expansion into the Amazon — the world’s largest rainforest, responsible for cooling the globe and absorbing carbon dioxide — while also knowing it isn’t in Brazil’s immediate fiscal interest to impede their biggest coffee producers.

Small coffee needs big coffee — and smaller farmers voting for Lula is no sure bet

Interestingly, many small farmers actually support Bolsonaro, said Mary Paula Arends-Kuenning, former director of the Lemann Institute for Brazilian Studies at the University of Illinois, who has worked with farmers in Paraná, a state in southeastern Brazil, where most of the coffee is grown. Bolsonaro appeals to their culturally conservative politics, she said, even though he favors larger coffee firms over their smaller businesses.

But, said Ceballos-Sierra, it’s not so simple as supporting the little guy or the big guy.

The smaller, more sustainable coffee growers are able to operate profitably, Ceballos-Sierra said, only because the large coffee firms are mass-producing coffee and meeting the global commercial demand.

With this commercial supply met by big firms, Brazil can support a more diverse coffee market. Instead of harvesting the less-sustainable sun-grown coffee and working with big agribusiness, smaller farmers can invest in other, smaller sectors of the coffee market. Increasingly, said Ceballos-Sierra, they are focusing on quality over quantity — selling more expensive specialty coffees directly to roasters.

Brazil has progressive rules in place; Bolsonaro just doesn’t follow them

Brazil, as a nation, has long understood the importance of its biome to the rest of the world, but also to its crops. In 1965, it passed a set of laws called the Brazilian Forest Code, to protect local flora especially in the Amazon; those laws were updated in 2012. But Bolsonaro, who took office in 2018, hasn’t been enforcing the regulations. “All enforcement structures have been taken down,” said Pedro Luiz Côrtes, environmental science and communications professor at the University of São Paulo. “And even when there is some kind of investigation, it rarely leads to any punishment. The current administration is extremely lenient” when it comes to skirting environmental laws.

The code is actually extremely progressive, said geographer João Felipe Ribeiro. In the Amazon, for example, producers are allowed to use only 20 percent of their land — that includes new construction, crops and whatever else. The 80 percent remaining must be preserved, keeping the native vegetation. The way to ensure this happens, however, is to have consistent investigations and inspections, explained Ribeiro, and Bolsonaro doesn’t have any problem with people who bypass the rules.


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“The president himself disallows these investigations,” said Ribeiro, “He was elected by people who don’t follow these laws.”

But according to Ribeiro and Côrtes, the producers in Brazil that don’t follow the laws in the short term are actually harming their own businesses in the long run. Using more than that 20 percent of land means loss of native vegetation that is responsible for stabilizing its biome, including moisture levels — and that is the biggest threat to coffee producers right now and in the future, said Arends-Kuenning.

It’s not a direct connection, but it’s a powerful one, said Côrtes. The majority of coffee grown in Brazil comes from its southeast states, far from the Amazon, but that doesn’t mean they’re not impacted by rainforest deforestation.

It’s also important to note that Brazil’s main source of electricity is hydroelectric plants. The Amazon is basically a “water pump,” Ribeiro said, for crops all over the country, including coffee.

The longer-term look at coffee production under Bolsonaro

Under Bolsonaro, the Amazon saw rates of deforestation — clearing land for agribusiness — increase. Continued loss of world’s largest and most biodiverse rainforest is, for many climate scientists, one of the most immediate threats to global warming and the climate crisis.

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Experts worry that, long-term, these global rising temperatures will threaten not only Brazil’s coffee industry, but also the next-largest markets — those in Vietnam, Indonesia, Columbia and Ethiopia, Ceballos-Sierra said.

A January study in PLOS One models that these countries will no longer be suitable for coffee production by 2050. Other countries further from the equator, such as China, Argentina and Uruguay, may have the most ideal climates for coffee production.

Worried about where its produce is coming from, the European Commission approved a bill earlier this month that ensures all commodities are coming from suppliers that abide by its local environmental laws — that includes Brazilian coffee.

Some Brazilian producers were not happy about it; Europe is a big consumer of Brazilian coffee, and extra certificates or reports would add to the cost of production. But ultimately, Ribeiro explained, these laws are not only for the European conscience, but also for Brazilian producers’ own good: “Coffee producers should actually be fighting against Amazon deforestation. It causes droughts; it affects their business.”

In 2021, unseasonable weather — a result of climate change — hit local farms. Long-lasting frosts and fluctuating precipitation damaged crops across Brazil, disrupting coffee production by up to 10 percent — between 4 and 5 million bags of beans. “Last year we had big droughts, for example. That’s the price we pay,” said Côrtes.

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What does this mean for your cup of joe?

In the short term, it might not mean much — Brazil’s commercial coffee industry, under either candidate, will continue its dominance on the world stage. But another four years under Bolsonaro’s leadership will likely mean continued deforestation — and that will affect all of Brazil’s crops.

“Basically, the deforestation of the Amazon decreases precipitation levels in central and southeastern parts of Brazil. It ends up affecting the country’s agricultural production and even energy supplies,” said Côrtes.

Bottom line: That means the price of Brazil’s agriculturally produced exports — including coffee — will likely go up.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.