The Coffee Crisis of the 1990s: A Brew of Economic Turmoil and Global Impact

The 1990s witnessed a significant upheaval in the global coffee market, often referred to as the ‘Coffee Crisis’. This period was marked by the collapse of coffee prices, which had far-reaching consequences on the economies of coffee-producing countries, the livelihoods of farmers, and even the quality of coffee consumed worldwide.

The Prelude to the Crisis

Prior to 1989, the International Coffee Agreement (ICA) played a pivotal role in stabilizing coffee prices globally, akin to OPEC’s influence on oil. The ICA, renegotiated every five years, maintained quotas and controlled prices between major coffee-producing and consuming countries. However, in 1989, the agreement collapsed, largely due to the lack of support from the United States, the largest importing nation. The Reagan administration’s free-market stance was a major factor in the ICA’s demise. This led to a significant drop in coffee prices, plummeting to as low as $0.49 per pound by 1992, far below production costs. The fallout from this was catastrophic for small farmers, many of whom suffered up to a 70% drop in income, leading to land abandonment, migration, and even a shift to illicit crop cultivation​​.

The Role of Oversupply and Quality Decline

The initial price crash was exacerbated by oversupply in the market. Encouraged by world development banks and multinational corporations, coffee production expanded rapidly, especially in Vietnam, which saw an over 1100% increase in production beginning in 1991. This oversupply was dominated by cheaper robusta beans, which were historically considered low-quality but were now being used extensively due to new processing methods that made them more palatable. This shift led to a decrease in the demand for arabica beans from smaller growers in Latin America, where production costs were higher. Consequently, profits for coffee-producing nations plummeted from about 30 percent of the purchase price to a mere 8 percent over a decade​​.

Economic and Social Impact on Producing Countries

The coffee crisis had a profound impact on the economies of coffee-producing countries, especially those where coffee constituted a significant portion of the Gross National Product (GNP). With incomes from coffee production not even covering the cost of cultivation, many growers were forced to sacrifice quality for quantity. This led to a notable decline in the quality of coffee being sold, affecting both the sustainability of coffee as a cash crop and consumer experience. The crisis also fostered conditions where underripe and overripe berries were harvested together, further diminishing the quality of the final product​​.

Global Response and Long-term Implications

In response to the crisis, solutions like Fair Trade coffee emerged, offering a floor price for raw coffee sold by cooperatives, aimed at stabilizing coffee prices at levels supportive of growers. The United Nations and the International Coffee Organization advocated for the adoption of quality standards to encourage best agricultural practices among growers. These initiatives were part of a comprehensive strategy to not only stabilize coffee prices but also to improve the quality and sustainability of coffee production​​.


The Coffee Crisis of the 1990s serves as a stark reminder of the vulnerabilities and complexities of global commodity markets. The collapse of coffee prices underlined the interconnectedness of global economies and the profound impact that policy decisions and market forces can have on the livelihoods of millions, particularly in developing countries. The crisis also highlighted the need for sustainable practices and fair pricing in the coffee industry, lessons that continue to resonate in today’s global coffee market.

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