A Coffee Shortage Might Be Coming Due To COVID-19 And Starbucks Price Fixing

A person pours milk into coffee.
Fahmi Fakhrudin / Unsplash

The coffee industry may soon join the list of 2020 casualties after being hit with both the effects of the novel coronavirus as well as disappointingly low bean prices for the ubiquitous morning beverage.

According to the BBC, coffee farmers working in South America have sounded the alarm that workers — fearing for their safety amidst surging infection rates — have decided against participating in the coffee harvest. The situation has only been compounded by the fact that beans are fetching lower-than-average payments thanks to the dual titans of Starbucks and Nestle keeping coffee rates at all time lows.

“If we cannot get more workers we could lose some of our crop. The beans will fall and rot on the ground,” lamented Ángel García, a farm manager of the Santa Isabel estate in Colombia.

Santa Isabel, located in the province of Antioquia, is far from the only estate dealing with labor shortages this year. Normally, the region sees around 32,000 coffee pickers to take full advantage of the harvest. The number is so high that migrant workers from other parts of the company usully flood the area between September to December for the work.

However, 2020 is different, and the National Federation of Coffee Growers has estimated that Antioquia is suffering from 7,000 fewer pickers than in previous years, mainly thanks to fears over contracting COVID-19.

Though the image of harvesting coffee may seem like a remote and isolated task, in reality it is a cramped exercise where social distancing is nearly impossible.

“Even if you try to avoid contact with others, you really can’t,” explained Luis Giraldo, a veteran harvester. Giraldo noted that since most of the workers are migrants, they all live in crowded dorm-style housing. He also said that few wore masks because of the demanding physical nature of the job.

Harvesters pick coffee on a farm.
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Estate owners have resorted to desperate measures to find additional harvesters, but their efforts have so far been futile.

“We are putting ads on the radio, we are sending out a truck into town with a megaphone on it, offering to bring workers to the farm,” García claimed. “The truck often comes back empty.”

The low prices in the market at present do not help matters. Industry expert Fernando Morales de La Cruz puts the blame on large corporations such as Starbucks and Nestle, who have the collective bargaining power to keep prices low. For example, a pound of coffee today costs less than it did in 1983. Morales de La Cruz has claimed that the shortages will likely continue until “the business model on which the global coffee industry operates is changed.”