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What Does Climate Change Mean for Coffee?

And what we can do about it.

by Ever Meister | April 22, 2022

This Earth Month, while we’re celebrating the abundantly beautiful parts of the world we live in and on, we’re also tuned in to analysis of and discussions about climate change: Whether or not it’s an imminent threat, what we can do about it, and how it will continue to affect various areas of our lives unless we find a way to collectively stop its spread.

Coffee’s relationship to climate change is one focus that our worldwide community has taken on, and while it’s a serious topic, there’s a lot of hope to be found in this resilient, caffeinated sphere. Today, let’s look at some of the latest research, along with efforts to curtail the negative impacts of climate change everywhere from the coffeelands all the way to your morning cup.

How does climate change affect coffee?

Coffee might make us feel stronger in going about our days, but at its heart it’s a somewhat delicate species that is very susceptible to environmental changes and challenges. There are myriad angles we could explore when looking at the ways that climate change affects coffee, but we will look at three significant ones: the shifting “Coffee Belt,” disease resistance, and yields.

Because it is a tropical evergreen shrub, coffee has historically thrived within a somewhat narrow geographical area falling between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Within that tropical band, Coffea arabica (the species we prefer in specialty coffee) also requires somewhat specific climate conditions: a reliable rainy season to trigger the blossoming stage, warm and sunny days during the growing season, cool but not cold overnight lows, and dry weather during harvest and processing.

According to NASA, the average global temperature has incased by 1.1° Celsius since 1880, and that climb has happened exponentially quicker since 1975. That rising temperature might go relatively unnoticed by humans, but to plants it’s a dramatic shift. Coffea arabica is commonly planted on mountainsides in its tropical habitat, where temperatures are cooler at higher elevation. As temperatures rise, coffee farms need to chase the cooler air, necessitating a move farther up the side of the mountain — a feat that is exceptionally difficult physically, financially, and logistically, not to mention the fact that there is less surface area up there for farming.

In addition to the difficulties related to land and location, rising temperatures and changing weather patterns also affect the pathological effect on coffee. Coffee-leaf rust, for example, is a disease that prevents afflicted trees from providing nutrients to the fruit on their branches, causing the fruit and leaves to fail. It is called “rust” because of the rust-colored spots it produces on the undersides of affected leaves; those spots contain spores that can be transported from one plant to another through contact with human or animal skin, clothing, or shoes, and can even become windborne and spread that way. Until the past decade, coffee-leaf rust was considered a lower-elevation problem thanks in large part to higher temperatures and increased humidity at those placements; as coffee regions have experienced an increase in temperature due to climate change, however, coffee-leaf rust has crept higher up the mountains of the coffeelands, now appearing as far as 1,800 meters. In the last decade, coffee-leaf rust has caused widespread destruction of farms and livelihoods throughout Latin America, resulting in dramatic loss of yields (up to 50% loss in El Salvador) and even inspiring some nations to call a state of emergency at the disease’s worst.

We Now Interrupt This Story

That brings us to the last of this climate change trifecta: yields. The more stress the plants experience — too much heat (or cold, as in the case of devastating frost), too much rain, too much wind, diseases, soil depletion, and so on — means that yields are compromised as the plants can’t produce enough fruit, or that fruit suffers and falls short of expectation. Not only that, but the greater the environmental challenges are, the harder it is to be a coffee farmer, which inspires producers to look to other crops, abandoning or removing their coffee plants when farming them is no longer a viable possibility.

These factors are just the beginning of a wide-ranging catalog of the effects of climate change on coffee, and the results could potentially be quite serious: Dr. Aaron Davis, head of coffee research at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, has conducted extensive studies on climate and coffee, and has stated that without intervention or breeding and selection innovation, wild Arabica coffee could become extinct by 2050.

Research and hope

Exhale deeply, dear reader! It’s not all doom and gloom: While the realities of climate change are daunting, there are plenty of organizations and companies doing good work to learn more, fight back, and ensure a long and healthy life for coffee (and more).

Since 2012, World Coffee Research (WCR) has been one of the leaders in work designed to not only study the implications of climate change on the coffee industry, but also in finding potential solutions and opportunities that can help smallholder farmers become more climate resilient as the world continues to change. The organization is supported by a collection of future-focused coffee companies, progressive exporters, importers, and roasters who believe that the sustainability of coffee relies on understanding and fulfilling the evolving needs of coffee growers globally.

Just last year, the WCR announced an ambitious plan to study coffee-leaf rust through extensive research into patterns of pathological spread, looking into biological control options for farmers, field trials of disease-resistant plants, and more.

Several members of the Trade family are WCR members, providing much-needed funds that allow the organization to continue exploring the development and resilience of various coffee cultivars, as well as other investigations in areas related to economic and agricultural sustainability and production: Boxcar Coffee Roasters, Equator Coffees, Huckleberry Roasters, Irving Farm Coffee, and Metric. Buying coffee from those roasters provides direct support for the global investigations and development that could be a road to resilience for coffee and coffee farmers worldwide.

In other good news, the same Kew Gardens team that estimated 2050 as the end of wild Arabica just revealed research that’s led them to pathways to “futureproof” the coffee industry. Ongoing investigation into variety selection, cultivar development, and climate resilience could mean innovative genetic design and distribution that could assist producers in protecting their yields, maintaining their original locations, and pushing forward in the face of a shifting environmental landscape.

What can you do?

We know that our Trade community cares deeply about coffee and coffee people, and many of our subscribers want to do whatever they can to assist in the ongoing work to protect our favorite drink.

You are contributing to WCR’s efforts whenever you buy coffee from a member company like those listed above, and even a little goes a long way when it comes to a collective effort such as WCR’s. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew accepts individual gifts as well as memberships in order to support far-reaching plant genetic research such as that being conducted by Dr. Davis and his team.

Lastly, just keep drinking, loving, and buying great coffee online: The more viable production is for farmers, the stronger their future in the industry is, and the better able they are to invest in climate resilient tools and techniques that will help them thrive for years to come. It sounds like a small act, but it’s deeply meaningful — and you’re already doing it!

This Earth Month we encourage you to read more about coffee and climate change, and keep an eye on other efforts to learn more, adapt, and shift our expectations as the world continues to evolve. There is no easy solution, but if we all take the time and make the effort to pay attention and care, we’ll be better off than if we simply ignore it all and sip in silence. Let’s keep talking about it, learning about it, and coming together to help the future of coffee.