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Coffee and the Climate Crisis

Many of us start our day with a cup of coffee without a second thought for the South American farmers whose labour affords us this luxury, but as the impacts of the last 100 years of climate change become increasingly damaging, the future of coffee is progressively under threat. With average temperatures set to increase by 2 to 3°C by 2050, coffee growth is predicted to drop by 50%, leaving the 125 million people depending on coffee farming for their livelihood in impending disaster.

The Global Coffee Market

The majority of the world’s coffee is grown in the Bean Belt, a band of 70 countries confined within the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. While these countries currently provide optimal soil, climate, and altitude conditions for flavoursome coffee beans, the geographical location of the Bean Belt in relation to the equator makes these countries most susceptible to the effects of climate change.

While there are over 120 species of coffee plants worldwide, the most widely consumed varieties are Coffea Arabica, known as Arabica, and Coffea Canephora, more commonly known as Robusta. Arabica coffee, the most preferred variety, grows in more evolved altitudes at optimal temperatures of 18-21 °C, and can tolerate mean annual temperatures of up to 24 °C. Meanwhile, Robusta coffee is known to grow in more lowland areas, with an optimal mean growing temperature of 22-30 °C given the hotter climate conditions of the Congo Basin in Central Africa to which the crop is native. Arabica coffee, which is widely revered for its delicate and aromatic flavour, accounted for nearly 60% of the global coffee production in 2018, while the lower quality Robusta coffee occupies about 40% of the global market.

Climate change predictions

Climate change, largely defined as extreme weather events, which includes rising temperatures, strong and unpredictable rains and wind, and longer dry seasons, has been impacting this earth for many years. According to data extracted from the NASA GISS Surface Temperature Analysis, the average temperature on the surface of the planet, including land and ocean, has increased by 0.93 °C since the beginning of the 20th century, and will continue to rise this century to give a temperature increase of 1.5-4.5 °C in summer seasons. The International Centre for Tropical Agriculture’s (CIAT) analysis of temperature and rainfall changes in 2050 in coffee growing sites based in Central America compared to 2016 values illustrates the effects of climate change if it continues at the current levels (see below).

Figure 1: Predicted Temperature and Rainfall Changes in Coffee Growing Sites in Central America (CIAT)

Statistics show that the average annual rainfall is predicted to decrease from current levels of 1740 mm to 1610 mm in 2050, and the average annual temperature is set to increase by 2.2 °C.

A Damaged Coffee Market

If such predictions become reality, dramatic repercussions will be felt by coffee supply chains and markets all around the world, with the decrease in rainfall during the dry seasons of June to October likely to especially effect the flowering period of coffee plants. Meanwhile, the hottest month in the tropics, May could reach temperatures above 25 °C, making it unsuitable for obtaining high quality yield in Arabica coffee farming. In addition to the lower temperature conditions at which Arabica coffee grows in, the crop is said to have a low tolerance to rising heat, fluctuating rainfall, and pests such as the infamous coffee leaf rust that converts coffee plant leaves from green to brown. Moreover, when Arabica coffee is grown at high temperatures of above 23 °C, the fast plant growth and early fruit formation results in poor bean quality and a faster decline of plant health. This global phenomenon has the potential to severely disrupt the supply volumes and quality of beans produced in many developing countries, many of which depend on coffee as their second largest commodity, after crude oil, for export revenues. While the Robusta coffee crop is widely considered as more resilient to climate change effects, recent studies conducted by researchers from the University of Southern Queensland in Australia have found through 10 years of field observation that Robusta production is nonetheless still also sensitive to temperature changes. These findings widely disrupt the conventional belief that Robusta can be a good replacement for Arabica in regions where temperature increases are predicted in future. 

However, we must remember that the effects of climate change on coffee cultivation will play out differently in different regions. Mesoamerica – the historical and cultural region in North America – can potentially witness the highest loss in area suitable for coffee growth, with countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador likely to be most affected given their lack of availability of high mountain regions. Moreover, Brazil in South America is set to lose about 25% of its land for coffee cultivation by 2050, which given its status as the world’s largest Arabica producer would be a monumental economic blow. On the other hand, this could open up large opportunities for areas such as East Africa and Indonesia which are predicted higher levels of rainfall and reduced dry seasons, therefore shifting market opportunities in the long run.

Steps in the Right Direction

Despite the impending coffee crisis, action is being taken to circumvent the potentially dire consequences of climate change on coffee’s supply chains. Sustainable farming is a modern solution which includes finding more resilient crop varieties and establishing deforestation-free agricultural commodity supply chains. Moreover, with avid coffee drinkers in the Western World being especially drawn to food labels such as sustainable and Fairtrade, farming practices that take the climate into account can be expected to have increasing consumer interest in the near future. However, several complexities can arise from such proposals since farmers require high funding to adopt such practices.

Luckily, with coffee being added to the list of commodities eligible for receiving funding under the GEF-7 Replenishment (Global Environment Facility Seventh Replenishment Period), there are significant opportunities for coffee growing countries to capitalise on receiving funding for new transformational projects. The International Coffee Organisation (ICO), comprising of major countries that import and export coffee, and the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, which was launched by Conservation International, have formed a partnership to produce a guide for coffee stakeholders on how to access GEF-7 funding. Moreover, World Coffee Research, a non-profit organisation receiving funding from coffee companies such as Lavazza and Gruppo Illy, is currently investigating the climate resilience of various coffee varieties found around the world. By tapping into coffee genetics and working with breeding programs from different countries, the organisation is working on introducing more genetically-pure and climate-resilient coffee varieties that meet consumer standards for flavour and quality.

So, despite coffee markets and supply chains being endangered by climate change, modern solutions are coming to their rescue. However, with GMO coffee plants seemingly on the horizon, will public perception be positive, and if not, what can be done instead?

Analytics by Khadija Afia Allapitchai