This latest ad is really disturbing.
I drink a lot of coffee. Not a moderate amount, but a lot. Hot, black, strong. I gleefully read all the articles about how coffee is a wonder food, and particularly liked the recent commentary from some folks that coffee now has such a positive impact on health for so many people that the grand pooh-bahs of medicine should encourage people who don’t drink coffee to start.
Ah, it does the heart good when foods you love make the swing from hated and feared to loved and embraced. Line up, animal fats! Come on over, egg yolks! Step right up, beer and wine!
So yes, you may just say that I’m self-medicating an attention deficit disorder with my overflowing mugs of java, but the fact is that things people write about coffee tend to catch my eye.
And this latest piece, which was an ad from Brad Hoppman for his (new, I think) Cash Flow Kings newsletter, published by the Weiss Research folks, told me not only that I might be at huge health risks from coffee … but that I could also get filthy, stinkin’ rich from solving the problem?
Well, that’s a no-brainer. Of course I’m gonna read that.
So what’s the deal?
Well, as with many such things they build a sales case based on a somewhat sketchy connection… they start by getting us afraid that mycotoxins in our coffee are making us sick (from almost any ailment you can think of), then say that this slow-motion fungal poisoning (panic!) can be stopped. My personal assessment is that worrying about aflatoxin or similar minute fungal contaminants in your roasted, brewed coffee is probably a little silly unless you also walk around worried every day about breathing in diesel fuel and coal particulates and crossing the street.
Here’s some of the alarmism from the ad:
“What does this mean to us? Surely, nobody is dropping dead because of their morning cup of coffee, right?
“However, I encourage you to withhold final judgment of just how destructive this mold is until you read this entire report to the very end.
“See, humans have an immune system that protects us from ‘foreigners,’ which provides a barrier for us, fighting off microbial enemies. But mycotoxins have a special way of dealing with our defense system….
“One study confirmed that mycotoxins can cross the blood-brain barrier — unchecked — creating short- and long-term damage. If you’ve ever felt depressed, down or unfocused without knowing why — mycotoxins could be the culprit….
“In fact, if you experience any of the following:
- Trouble getting out of bed in the morning
- Stiff joints, especially in the morning or at night
- Difficulty with digestion
- Low energy throughout the day
- That dreaded afternoon slump or “crash”
- Brain ‘fog’ or difficulty focusing
… Then chances are, you might be affected by mycotoxins right now.”
Well, for that list of possible symptoms you could also say, “chances are, you’re no longer 17” or “you have young children” or “you’re not sleeping enough” or “you ate too much Indian food last night” or “something’s bugging you at work” … I can think of a time when I’ve experienced every single one of those symptoms, most of them within the last month or two. I’m fighting back the urge to panic that it’s my coffee causing the problem.
No, not really. I don’t mean to downplay the severity of the diseases and disorders that molds and toxins can cause, but I think mycotoxins have been found in pretty much every grain-based food and legume in the food chain in small doses, and in lots of other food products, they are monitored by food safety folks… And they’re probably in the blood of each of us in some small measure.
But coffee rust, now, there’s a problem I can start worrying about. That might make it a lot harder to get good coffee, which would be disastrous. And it is already destroying the economies of at least a few Central American countries who depend on coffee cultivation, to say nothing of the large number of what Starbucks would call ‘artisanal’ growers (and we might call “dirt-poor, desperately hand-to-mouth family plantations”).
Leaf rust in coffee is not that different than the rust you might see on untreated apple trees — the leaves “rust” and wither, with the fungus stealing any nutrients straight from the leaf and starving the plant, which then can’t produce as much (or any) fruit. It is typically called “La Roya” South of the Border, and it is indeed a crisis for coffee plantations and coffee-dependent economies. One that seems to get worse each year as it spreads.
The highest quality coffees, the arabica beans, have always been susceptible to leaf rust, but now climate change and global trade mean the high-altitude plantations are being impacted on every continent (the fungus needs heat and humidity, which used to help protect the growers in the Andes, for example, but doesn’t as much anymore). Unfortunately, that has also been exacerbated by a lot of “new ideas” for this ancient, shade-grown plant… particularly the very profitable decision, in the short term, to plant coffee plantations in full sun at lower elevations, which brings much higher yields but also gets rid of some of the protection that shade and cooler temperatures offered to these plants (including competing benign fungi, which can help protect coffee plants from rust).
So solving the coffee rust problem, which has been around since coffee was introduced as a traded, global crop in the early days of the British empire, is a big deal. And, more importantly to the investment argument, Hoppman hints that a secret stock he’s picking has a “super fungicide” that has been through trials to help fight “La Roya” … which he thinks could lead to 50-100% gains for investors.
What’s the fix? Well, right now coffee plantations use copper fungicides and similar chemicals, which are often ineffective against rust, or they cut the shrubs down to the stump to eradicate the rust (which spreads on the air, so stumping is a losing battle if just one farmer does it)… and most of the successful fights against serious leaf rust problems, like in Colombia, have come from replanting with disease-resistant varieties.
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This itself is resisted in some areas — not just because replanting means you have to wait three years to harvest again, but because the disease resistance often changes the flavor of the beans. These are sometimes old, revered varieties that growers have used to build reputations for sweetness and flavor (think vineyards — how often do they willingly give up on their vintage rootstock?), and from what I can tell much of the disease resistance has been bred in by giving the arabica plants more characteristics from the lower-quality (more bitter, less flavorful) robusta varieties of coffee that tend to do much better in warm climates and at lower altitudes.
Governments and agronomists around the world are looking for solutions, including better fungicides and more disease-resistant plants (though that’s been a slow process, partly because the industry has been reluctant to embrace genetic engineering — breeding takes a lot longer in the field than in the lab), so I suppose it’s reasonable to say that a new product that fights coffee rust would have meaningful potential — so how about some more hints regarding which product and company are on the road to riches?
Here you go:
“Yes, the $100 Billion+ Coffee Industry Is in Mortal Danger
“As you know, coffee is one of the world’s most popular crops. After crude oil, coffee is the second most sought-after commodity in the world. In fact, the coffee industry is worth over $100 billion worldwide….
“If rising coffee prices were the only consequence of this plague, it would be one thing.
“But the more this plague spreads, the more coffee beans are tainted with mold, and the bigger the health risks.”
There’s a lot of mold out there. I have not seen anything to indicate that leaf rust is the specific source of the mold that makes it onto green coffee beans after harvest, or that survives to create mycotoxins (though I’m no expert on coffee growing or processing, as I hope is clear from this blather). The problem with leaf rust, from what I can tell, is that it kills the plants and slashes the yield, not necessarily that it makes the coffee beans more likely to have toxic mold by-product on them. I suspect, though I’m partly guessing, that the handling and processing of coffee is where much of the mold and the subsequent aflatoxin (or whatever) contamination comes from.
But I digress … what’s the company? Let’s get back to the ad.
“Clearly, this plague must be stopped. Millions of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake.
“That’s why all of the major coffee roasters and the world’s leading producers gathered for their emergency summit.
“You know who else was at that emergency meeting?
“A company with an incredible new technology that just may have the power to stop this dangerous outbreak — and save not just coffee drinkers but the entire industry.
“You see, La Roya is a fungus and it’s incredibly difficult to kill via normal methods. It has been resistant to most traditional fungicides, leaving officials perplexed with few options and little hope for stopping it … That is, until very recently.
“Because thanks to this one company’s new technology, there is a solution around the corner.
“Already, the company’s trials have shown their enhanced methods to be significantly more effective in helping stop La Roya and mold from growing and spreading. And that means, for you and me, this may also be … The Profit Opportunity of a Lifetime.”
That’s most of what we learn by way of “clues” from the ad — but there are a couple other tidbits:
“Their patented ‘super fungicide’ is the ONLY solution capable of mass production to fight La Roya — and I’m convinced that their revenues are about to explode….
“As of this writing, the company in question is trading 30% lower than its one-year high….
“… the company has been spending an enormous amount of money on research and development, preparing solutions like their super fungicide — which have the potential to stop the La Roya plague …
“Because of this increase in spending, their profits have been down slightly, and traditional investors dumped the stock….
“You’ll discover who they are … what makes their genetic technology so uniquely powerful … plus when and how high you can expect their stock to soar.”
So… who are they? Well, a company with a genetic technology, super fungicide, testing for and selling to coffee farmers, capable of mass production, and 30% off its high? That isn’t enough to give 100% certainty, since many of those clues are a bit “squishy”… but the Thinkolator has a pretty high degree of certainty that we’re being teased about… Syngenta (SYT)
Syngenta is not particularly secret, of course — it’s one of the massive agri-tech companies out there who control much of the world of seeds and pesticides, along with Monsanto (MON), Du Pont (DD), Dow (DOW), FMC (FMC) and others that I’m probably forgetting… though it happens to be Swiss, and perhaps a bit less hated than Monsanto among the anti-GMO activists, so I suppose it’s slightly under the radar.
And yes, Syngenta does have fungicides that it sells to coffee growers — particularly Quadris, which seems to be a relatively new one. And they say they have a leading position in crop protection for plantation products, including coffee and cocoa (and bananas).
SYT is a Swiss company, with a market cap around $30 billion, and they’ve had some challenges in the past with their reporting currency (like other Swiss firms, they struggled when the Franc was strong and their exports looked weaker in those terms), but they’re really a global firm (much of their manufacturing is outside of Switzerland, and essentially all of their customers are) so the currency shouldn’t have a major impact (it comes out in the wash, as it were). They have not been growing of late, and have been on a job-cutting spree this year — I’m sure their R&D spending has kept up reasonably well, but coffee is not going to singlehandedly fix their growth trajectory.
The finances are solid, if not really growing much — the stock trades for about 16X earnings, yields a bit over 3% for a dividend, and they’ve been growing the dividend by about 10% a year. I don’t know of any reason why they should be expected to jump by 50% in the next year, but it is, of course, possible (that would get them back to their highs of a year or two ago). They have also been a takeover target of Monsanto in the past, rumor has it, though that would be a tough nut to swallow and, perhaps, tough to get through antitrust or European regulators (though antitrust hasn’t been all that active of late). They’re cheaper than Monsanto and pay a higher dividend, but they’re also not growing like Monsanto.
As for me, I’m going to continue to ignore the peril of mycotoxins in my coffee (yes, I know mycotoxins are real, and that they do cause disease, and that aflatoxin, in particular, is even a carcinogen). I’m not going to go out of my way to buy cheap robusta coffee with extra aflatoxins or ochratoxins in it, of course, and I know that better coffee is generally processed more carefully, with less chance for large amounts of mold to make it through and leave those toxic residues… but neither do I think I’m going to significantly improve my health by ingesting one tenth of the “safe” level of mycotoxin instead of 1/5th of the safe level, and my brief foray through the nutraceutical blogosphere gives me the impression than most of the people hawking “mycotoxin-free coffee” have lost all perspective. Mycotoxins and similar potentially nasty stuff are in almost everything that’s worth eating or drinking, it seems. Time and worry are finite resources, I’m using mine on other concerns.
And I’m not rushing out to buy Syngenta (SYT), but it is a huge, well-established company that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as Monsanto (MON) — and it’s a bit cheaper. Sound like your cup of… well, coffee? Prefer something else in the world of crop protection (or think there’s a better match for those squishy clues than Syngenta?) Let us know with a comment below…