Will coffee become extinct?
Climate change could render about half of today’s coffee-growing land unsuitable for production by 2050, according to a new report. Major coffee companies including Starbucks are taking steps to help the world's coffee farmers cope.
Among the undesirable consequences of a warming and wetter world is the potential for less morning joe available to its growing population of devotees.
Unpredictable weather, including unusual heat spikes or unseasonal rain or drought, will render about half of today’s coffee-growing land unsuitable for production by 2050, according to a new report from The Climate Institute in Australia. By 2080, estimates the institute, wild coffee such as weather-sensitive Arabica and Robusta could become extinct.
As coffee production declines due to climate, consumer prices will rise. Millions of coffee farmers in developing countries that depend on their robust coffee export businesses, such Honduras, Nicaragua, Vietnam, and Guatemala, could go out of business. These countries are among the world's most threatened by climate change.
“The evidence is now clear that climate change is already beginning to impact coffee production, along with other key world crops,” reports the institute.
Rising global demand for coffee is outstripping existing supply, a trend that will only be reinforced by erratic weather, the report says.
“Before the century is out . . . conditions are set to become inhospitable for Arabica coffee in the wild in East Africa – its centre of origin,” the climate institute concludes in its report. As a result, coffee production will move to other parts of the world, particularly to the highlands of East Africa, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Andes.
“In just a few decades, climate change could . . . push production upslope and away from the equator,” the institute predicts.
Coffee and other major crops already are at the mercy of unpredictable weather. Cocoa, for example, likely won’t be able to grow in West Africa, the epicenter of cocoa production, by the middle of this century.
Central America is one of the regions where coffee growers have felt the likely effects of climate change. In 2011, unusual levels of heat and rain brought a plant disease that affected more than half of the coffee crops in the region. Between 2012 and 2013, this amounted to $500 million of crop damages and 350,000 farm workers unemployed, according to the Climate Institute.
The impact of all this is not just on the anonymous farmers in a far-off land, though. It’s also showing up in your morning brew, which has been getting more expensive. Starbucks, for example, announced in July, as it does regularly, that it has raised prices on some coffees by up to 30 cents partly because of rising coffee bean costs, according to Fortune. That trend is expected to continue for coffee overall.
“. . . Tight supply, potentially detrimental weather and extremely strong global demand, especially emanating from the US, China and India . . . will continue to tighten coffee markets,” predicted Harish Sundaresh, a portfolio manager and commodities analyst in Boston for Loomis Sayles Alpha Strategies team, told Bloomberg in June.
Starbucks has said that it’s worried about the impact of climate change on its coffee supply. The company’s former sustainability director, Jim Hanna, has said Starbucks works with with local producers to try to protect them from future changes.
"What we are really seeing as a company as we look 10, 20, 30 years down the road – if conditions continue as they are – is a potentially significant risk to our supply chain, which is the Arabica coffee bean," he told The Guardian in 2011.
Starbucks is one of a number of global coffee purveyors, including Tim Hortons, Neumann Gruppe, and Gustav Paulig, that are part of "the initiative for coffee and climate," a partnership with NGOs and other organizations to "provide framers with training and tools to better respond to climate change," according to the Climate Institute.
In addition to offering coffee farmers financial incentives for reducing carbon emissions, the initiative works with growers to better adapt their crops, including "developing more resilient production systems, diversifying crops, and shifting plantations upslope," the report reads.
There is a small bit of comfort for coffee devotees, if not for farmers: If wild coffee disappears from some regions due to climate change, it could move to others that will become more hospitable – although the transition, the institute warns, could take several years.
Another ironically reassuring finding is that coffee plants appear to thrive with higher levels of carbon dioxide (C02), a gas in the atmosphere that is largely responsible for harmful global warming. But whether the benefits of C02 on those crops will outweigh the drawbacks of its negative impact on the climate, and thus coffee, is unclear.