Climate Corner: Wake up and smell the coffee

Dec 16, 2023

Linda Eve Seth

“As long as there was coffee in the world, how bad could things be?” — Cassandra Clare


Attention coffee drinkers: Grab a mugful and sit down before reading this column. The news is not good. Climate Change is making it much harder to grow and produce coffee.

Optimal coffee-growing conditions include cool to warm tropical climates, rich soils, and few pests or diseases. The world’s Coffee Belt spans the globe along the equator, with cultivation in North, Central, and South America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Brazil is the world’s largest coffee-producing country.

If Earth’s climate continues to warm over the coming decades, obstacles to coffee cultivation will multiply. Consider Arabica coffee (Coffea Arabica), the species grown for roughly 70% of worldwide coffee production. Arabica coffee (favored by Starbucks and other major coffee sellers), is a finicky crop that requires specific conditions to flourish. Arabica coffee thrives within an optimal temperature range of only 6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Above those moderate temperatures (64-70F), fruit development and ripening accelerate. (FYI -Coffee “beans” are actually the pit, or seed, of the plant’s fruit.) Faster ripening actually degrades coffee bean quality. Continuous exposure to temperatures much above these levels can severely damage coffee plants, stunting growth, yellowing leaves, even causing stem tumors.

Because of the importance of coffee to the rural economies of so many tropical countries, the recent research from The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) explored the potential impacts of a warming climate on coffee production in the Americas and Africa. The scientists forecast varying impacts in different Brazilian states: ranging from 10 percent reduction in suitable growing areas to as much as 75 percent reduction in some regions.

Coffee is grown on more than 27 million acres across 12.5 million (mostly) smallholder farms in 50-plus countries. Many coffee-producing regions are experiencing changing climate conditions, whose impact on coffee’s taste, aroma, and dietary quality is as concerning as diminishing yields and sustainability.

Studies showed that coffee plants will be “drastically” less suitable for cultivation in current coffee-producing regions by 2050 because of the impacts of Climate Change. Simply stated, higher temperatures make it harder to grow coffee. Coffee quality is susceptible to changes due to water stress and increased temperatures and carbon dioxide. Additionally, too much light exposure was associated with a decrease in coffee quality.

Warmer temperatures and changing rainfall patterns are already limiting the coffee bean supply chain at its origin; coffee farmers all around the globe are seeing a reduction in production, decreased quality and yields, as well as increased pests and disease. These factors impact the productivity of the million coffee farmers and workers composing the global supply chain.

The Climate Institute estimates that global area suitable for coffee growing will decrease by 50% over the next 25 years. It is expected that coffee production will therefore shift away from the equator and to higher altitudes. There is a notable downside to this shift: farmers will be compelled to expand into forests, contributing to deforestation, exacerbating climate change, and further impacting the farmers’ businesses. The changing climates are also driving significant volatility in coffee prices, which especially challenges small farmers.

The popularity of the rich, dark brew means that a substandard cup of coffee has economic implications. Factors that influence coffee production have great impacts on buyers’ interest, the price of coffee, and ultimately the livelihoods of the farmers who grow it. Some current efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change, including shade management to control light exposure, selection and maintenance of climate-resilient coffee plants, and pest management, show promise and feasibility.

Worldwide, between coffee shops and homes, coffee lovers consume more than 2.25 billion cups a day. Climate change has the potential to raise the price and worsen the taste of the favorite breakfast drink of billions of people, and it poses serious risks to the economic well-being of millions of people worldwide.

Combine the economic and trade impact of the coffee market with the unpredictable and undeniable effects of climate change and it is obvious that the future of coffee is at risk. Coffee is a demanding and highly sensitive commodity; a crop that both contributes to and is deeply affected by the changing climate.

Wake up, my friends, and smell the coffee…while you can.

Until next time, be kind to your Mother Earth.