Global warming could have an unsavory impact on coffee

Coffee beans on a wok. (Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric from Pexels.)

If you’re a coffee lover or a self-proclaimed java addict, you might rate coffee’s level of importance in your daily life fairly high.

While we can acknowledge just how important coffee can be, the other people who are directly affected by the beans and, in turn, your love for it, are the people who grow them.

Growing coffeee actually supports the livelihoods of about 100 million farmers around the world, according to InsideClimateNews.

Endangered beans

Now, you might want to sit down for this, but one recent study showed that of 124 different wild coffee species, about 60% of them are currently at risk of extinction.

That’s before we even begin to discuss the future related to climate change.

The same study took a look at the wild Arabica plant -- which most cultivated coffee is made from -- and has now classified it as endangered.

Aaron P. Davis, a senior research leader at England’s Royal Botanic Gardens and an author of the studies, said the rising global temperatures are presenting a risk to coffee farmers.

“We should be concerned about the loss of any species, for lots of reasons, but for coffee specifically, I think we should remember that the cup in front of us originally came from a wild source,” Davis said.

Climate change > coffee

Puerto Rico, known as a powerhouse when it comes to coffee growing, was top of the coffee production game 100 years ago.

Along with other coffee-growing countries in the “bean belt,” the mild climate where coffee beans thrive is forecasted to get drier and hotter, which could mean that, in as few as 50 years, coffee beans as we know them now might be an impossible product to grow, according to this study.

Many harvests are already near record lows, and Puerto Rico is projected to become hotter at nearly twice the average global rate.

“The projection for high-emissions scenarios, which is the track we’re on -- it’s a very serious scenario for Puerto Rico,” said Josh Fain, author of the study.

Those emissions aren’t just the most significant threat to the supply of coffee, but also the quality.

Hanna Neuschwander, who works with the World Coffee Research -- a group formed to address challenges posed by climate change -- said not only is it harder for plants to function in hotter temperatures, but it’s also when we see an increased prevalence of diseases and pests.

“We think about half of all suitable land will no longer be suitable (for coffee) by 2050,” Neuschwander said. “Over the same time, demand is expected to double.”

Making a move

Experts have noted that, while only 2% of land that’s suitable for growing coffee is being used, there is room for growers to push into new areas, but much of that land on which coffee beans could thrive is forest. Farming could put carbon-rich tropical forests at a high risk of deforestation.

Coffee plants grow best in mild, wet, mountainous climates, where there are cool nights and warm days -- experts say that difference is critical; as is having dry and wet stretches during the growing season.

With the temperatures warming, that critical difference between day and night is changing weather patterns that have become difficult to predict.

“Rising temperatures happen over years, but drought and disease can be so shocking to a farmer,” Neuschwander said. “They don’t have the resources to weather that storm. It’s often not the trajectory of climate change that would push a farmer out, but a more short-term shock that may be linked to climate.”

Working ahead

Countries like Brazil and Colombia have been working to develop plants that are more tolerant of the climate change by crossing genes with a different and stronger Robusta bean with the widely grown Arabica. Neuschwander said it’s trickier to cultivate, but it is a more superior cup of coffee.

“We’re working on developing more varieties that are tolerant to higher temperatures or lower temperatures, because growers may have to move further north or south,” she said.

William Gould, a forest scientist with the U.S. Forest Service’s International Institute of Tropical Forestry, said that, as climates become warmer and drier, cooler and wetter environments move up in elevation.

[Related video: Neuschwander discusses making progress on climate change and coffee’s potential impact]

This could mean farmers might have to expand outside the bean belt.

“We’re reducing our risk by planning ahead,” Gould said. “Coffee is a unique crop. There are just a few varieties that are grown around the world, and everybody has to have their cup of coffee in the morning.”

About the Author:

Dawn Jorgenson, Graham Media Group Branded Content Managing Editor, began working with the group in April 2013. She graduated from Texas State University with a degree in electronic media.