The Terrorist Threat to Your Daily Coffee — and What to Do About It
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because, let’s face it, you’re addicted to caffeine.
I hope you’ve had your caffeine fix today. If not, you’re probably too drowsy, irritable or shaky to safely read this article. Because, let’s face it, you’re addicted to caffeine. Not the life-threatening, family-intervention-deserving sort of addiction, but an addiction nonetheless. You’re not alone: Almost two-thirds of American workers drink at least two cups of coffee every day, and caffeine is the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug. And it’s not just our bodies that depend on the stuff: 1.6 percent of U.S. GDP is directly supported by the coffee industry, according to the National Coffee Association, and an untold amount more is dependent on workers’ caffeine-induced productivity.
But with great reliance comes vulnerability. Concern over the global supply of coffee is not an abstract threat: One study from the Climate Institute suggests that climate change could cut the area suitable for growing coffee in half worldwide by 2050. But there could be a more immediate danger to your daily espresso: bioterrorism. There is a “realistic” threat of bioterror in the form of agricultural sabotage, says Raymond Zilinskas, director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. And should anything happen to the global supply, economic activity in the developed (read: caffeinated) world could, ahem, grind to a halt. So, perhaps governments should stockpile coffee beans for reasons of national security to act as a buffer against any catastrophic global supply shocks. The U.S. already has a strategic petroleum reserve — hundreds of millions of barrels — in case of an emergency with the other liquid America is so addicted to, so why not the same for coffee?
It wouldn’t hurt to be prepared for the worst.
Almost two-thirds of global coffee production comes from the arabica plant, which is “pretty fragile,” says coffee industry expert Andrew Hetzel at Hawaii-based Coffee Strategies. “Most of the plants that are cultivated for arabica coffee come from a very narrow genetic pool, essentially the descendants of two or three original plants, so … you do have the potential of wiping out a large swath of the world’s coffee pretty quickly” with a fungus or pathogen engineered with devious intent. The Hemileia vastatrix fungus — aka “coffee rust” — all but wiped out the coffee industry in Sri Lanka in the late 19th century, and an epidemic across 10 Latin American and Caribbean countries in 2012 led to rocketing prices.
To make matters worse, bioterrorism events targeting the food supply are both “low-cost” and “low-tech,” says Lynn Klotz, senior fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, because, unlike with human pathogens like anthrax or smallpox, sinister actors can cultivate and transport the fungi or viruses without having to go to extreme lengths to protect themselves. Although coffee production is spread out across the world, two-thirds of it comes from just four countries, so a coordinated attack could have profound global implications.
Of course, similar concerns plague pretty much every other major crop, so coffee may not be the biggest worry. The Department of Agriculture has identified 10 crop pathogens of highest concern, which all target staples like soy, corn, wheat, potatoes and rice. “If you were a bioterrorist organization, there’d probably be higher priorities than making New York a slightly less productive and more angry place,” says Hetzel. Plus, even if coff-ageddon came to pass, from climate change or a maliciously instigated disease, we should probably direct our concerns to aiding the devastated growers, rather than the antsy Westerners going through withdrawal. Fifteen million Ethiopians, for example, rely on coffee production for their livelihood, with the industry accounting for about a third of the nation’s exports.
Nevertheless, it wouldn’t hurt to be prepared for the worst. OZY’s inquiries to the Department of Homeland Security were forwarded to the Department of Agriculture, which was unable to comment on the existence of coffee stockpiling backup plans by press time. So if the government won’t save us, maybe it’s time to stock up our nuclear bunkers with bags of coffee beans before it’s too late.