Coffee is one of the world’s most-traded commodities, grown and exported by over 60 countries, and is a staple in many people’s daily routines (including my own). But climate change is putting the world’s growing demand for coffee at serious risk. I’m prompted to write about this after reading an interview in Time magazine with Starbucks’ former CEO, Howard Schultz, wherein he says climate change is one of the biggest threats to the quality and availability of the coffee giant’s product. Climate change is already disrupting the fragile ecosystem that coffee flourishes in, and it’s only going to get worse.
Coffee is a notoriously picky plant that needs very specific living conditions, making it hard to grow it en masse anywhere that isn’t the optimal temperature and altitude. As the Earth rapidly continues to warm, land used for coffee farming will become less fertile, and coffee won’t be able to grow where it usually does around the Earth’s equator. Once heat makes the plants more vulnerable, coffee-specific diseases will threaten to wipe out entire plantations. On top of that, unpredictable storms and drastic temperature swings that kill crops are only predicted to get worse. According to the Time article, Costa Rican coffee harvests are already suffering from this unpredictability, causing a ~33% decline in production over 15 years.
Even though scientists have been sounding the alarm bells since 2003 about climate change hurting agriculture, we’re only now realizing how bad it could get. The Climate Institute (based in Australia) produced a startling report in 2016 about climate change's effect on coffee. It predicts that useable land for growing coffee beans will be cut in half by 2050, possibly even further. Another study, published last year in the Proceeding for the National Academy of Sciences, estimates usable coffee bean land in Latin America could be reduced by as much as 88% by 2050. (Reality check: that’s only 32 years from now, could you imagine a future without coffee so soon?)
The coffee industry is now actively taking proactive steps to research, understand and mitigate the situation. Time reports that Starbucks is so deeply concerned about climate change’s impact on agriculture (and the lack of government-funded research on the matter) that the company decided to take matters into their own hands; Starbucks developed their own “field laboratory” coffee farm in Costa Rica where they are conducting research on new ways of adapting coffee to climate change. Other initiatives such as Coffee & Climate aim to develop more sustainable production methods. Meanwhile, World Coffee Research is looking for answers based in science, such as inventing more robust species of coffee trees that are engineered to withstand the threats posed by climate change.
Unfortunately, these research efforts are at the mercy of a warming world and a population that doesn’t know how to help fix the problem. Just how badly climate change will affect coffee crops is unknown, and dependent on how hot the Earth gets. You can start making a difference by choosing to purchase coffee beans sourced from sustainable farms, as well as demanding government and policy-makers to fund research about climate change’s effects on our coffee and our lives.
How you can fight climate change today: Recycle any plastic/cardboard coffee cups, unplug your electric coffee maker when not in use, and drink sustainably farmed coffee.
(Note from Lauren: I promise to try to not to be so negative about climate change, but it’s currently a bleak situation because we aren’t making a serious effort, as humans living on this Earth together, to combat it. Group awareness gets attention, but group action gets results. Every time I write about climate change, I’ll offer a small action you can do today to be part of the solution.)