I really didn’t expect to find coffee in Yunnan. This region is famous for pu’er tea and the blogs I read before the trip all warned that you weren’t likely to find good espresso anywhere in China. I haven’t found that to be the case at all. On our first day in Xizhou, I wandered down the street towards the Linden Center and stumbled into Peter’s Coffee. The server, Roy, spoke a bit of English and helped my friend Molly and I order. I got a coffee and Roy explained that the beans were grown locally in Yunnan. What? Coffee production in China? It turns out that the government is strongly pushing coffee production in Yunnan province, with 95% of coffee production happening within the province. I met a Fulbright scholar named MJ Engel who is working out of Kunming, and she explained that coffee consumption in China has increased about 33 percent every year since 2006 and almost all demand is met with domestic production. The main regions for production are Baoshan, Dehong and Pu’er. They grow mostly the Arabica coffee variety.
Farmers are latching onto coffee because there is less chance for disease and pests. The plant is so new to the region that there are no predators yet. We spoke with Clément Rigal, a researcher at the World Agroforestry Center in Kunming, and he told us that many farmers are using agroforestry techniques to prevent their crops from freezing at high altitudes and to add additional crops (such as lychee) to diversify their revenue streams. This method of growing is more sustainable because the trees protect the coffee cherries and reduce the need for pesticides. The roots also help prevent erosion and shade helps the soils stay fertile. Pesticide use is also limited because few pests have adapted to eat coffee cherries, although Clement says that will likely happen within a few decades.
According to an article by Time Magazine, coffee was first introduced to the area by French missionaries in the 20th century. Coffee production in China, however, was mostly introduced through the international coffee behemoth Nestlé. The Chinese government asked the company to partner with local farmers in rural areas of China as part of a poverty alleviation initiative. Nestlé helps farmers establish coffee farms, teaches them environmental and ethical growing practices, and then buys their coffee at their warehouse in Pu’er. However, international prices have been at an all-time low so many coffee farmers are experiencing unstable incomes. The farmers often begin growing specialty coffees which they can sell at higher and more consistent prices. MJ said that the easiest way to turn regular coffee into a specialty coffee is by letting the cherries fully ripen and begin to ferment on the trees. This gives the coffee a sweeter, fruity taste. Farmers can also let the beans “honey” in the sugary inner mucilage layers. These processes take extra time but the farmers can get much more for their labor and don’t need to plant new trees.
The spread of coffee in Yunnan is great for those of us who love espresso, but may have long-term harms. I talked with MJ at Peter’s coffee after her presentations and she explained that it’s a difficult situation. On the one hand, Nestlé is a huge corporation that is well-known for poisoning water supplies and taking advantage of workers all over the world. However, their introduction of coffee to this region is helping pull some farmers out of poverty. We’ll have to wait to see the long term ecological impact of coffee production, but hopefully agroforestry techniques and limited use of pesticides can help keep coffee production sustainable in China.