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What Climate Change Means for the Future of Coffee

Posted: 05.14.2020 no comments


Despite the abundance of specialty beans available today — familiar coffees include Arabica from Ethiopia, Colombia, Guatemala, and beyond — experts agree the coffee landscape is fundamentally changing. Climate change threatens an existential disruption to the coffee industry with a veritable list of end-times plagues: heat, drought, floods, pests, and disease. As existing coffee breeds struggle in the extreme weather, prices will rise while Arabica varieties wane.



Farmers are now shifting their techniques. Many are adopting hardier hybrids. But without a monumental reduction in global carbon emissions, shifts in America’s coffee supply could be a few bad harvests from collapsing.




Coffee is an agricultural product that depends on a vast and complex network of players to bring flawless beans to retail shelves each week. While around 64 percent of Americans drink coffee each day, few recognize the fragility of its supply chain. Between 70 and 80 percent of global production depends on 25 million smallholder farmers working five acres or less in Africa and Latin America. For the last decade, these farmers have struggled to make ends meet, many surviving at the threshold of poverty.


Climate change experts warn that global temperatures will continue to rise this century, increasing between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees Celsius (about 35 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit) in the hottest months. However, it is the resultant weather swings that pose the greatest present-day problems for coffee producers — and consumers.


“Most places growing coffee are already experiencing tremendous variability,” Hanna Neuschwander, communications director, World Coffee Research, says. “And that’s what pushes a farmer out. It’s not the 0.1-degree gradual rise, it’s the peaks and troughs, and those are already here.”


The World Coffee Research organization (WCR) was founded in 2012 as a non-profit to study the future of the industry’s agricultural sector with climate change as the backdrop. WCR views climate change as the single biggest threat to the long-term sustainability of coffee. Without a reduction in carbon emissions, research and development must focus on mitigation like planting climate-appropriate varieties. Much like the hybrids in the wine industry, coffee varieties are created to account for environmental realities.


As Neuschwander explains, “Modern breeding is like a design process. What features do I want this chair to have? A straight back, a comfortable seat? We ask the same questions about [coffee] varieties.” The goal is for “designer” hybrids to weather environmental extremes. Saving coffee will take strategy and time, but forget the future. Climate change is here now, and its effects are rippling through the industry, soon to reach your very cup.


Read the entire article at Vinepair.