Global Warming Hits Coffee Crops

Global Warming Hits Coffee Crops

You’ve probably heard the scare stories — global warming is coming to steal your coffee. A few years ago, the newspapers blared the headlines that climate change was going to make coffee extinct within a few decades. The source was very reputable – London’s Kew Gardens – but the hyperbolic headlines overstated the problem. In reality, the research strongly suggested that changing temperatures and climate in Ethiopia, the so-called birthplace of coffee, were leading to the disappearance of many wild strains of coffee Arabica, the mother of most coffee drunk today. While that may seem like a much smaller problem than the disappearance of coffee altogether, it signals an alarming trend – and one that is playing out now, much sooner than scientists expected.

Global Warming Hits Your Morning Coffee

According to a short article on Yahoo! Finance, scientists have crunched the coffee bean data for the coffee-growing region of Tanzania and learned something that should alarm coffee drinkers everywhere. Rising nighttime temperatures in that country have led to a drop in the amount of coffee harvested. Tanzania is not the only coffee-growing country seeing these rising temperatures. Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Costa Rica, all in the same equatorial region, are also feeling the effects. Many of those countries report that coffee is growing at higher elevations, while the plants at lower elevations are yielding less coffee year after year. In addition, the wetter, warmer weather provides the ideal conditions for one of the coffee plant’s biggest enemies – coffee leaf rust, a fungus that attacks coffee plants and ultimately kills them. In the past few years, the rust – as it is colloquially known  – cut a wide swath through Central American coffee producing countries, decimating coffee crops and raising fears about coffee shortages and rising coffee prices.

The rust crisis also kicked off a huge push among specialty coffee roasters, importers and others in the coffee industry to partner with coffee farmers and coffee producing nations in various initiatives. They include programs to distribute information about combating coffee leaf rust, replace damaged trees with new seedlings and even to consider temporary changes to organic farm standards so that coffee farmers can fight la roya with the most effective pesticides without throwing away the years spent obtaining organic certification. These initiatives have borne fruit in a number of ways. They also provide a helpful blueprint for those in the coffee industry who are looking for ways to adapt to the new reality.

Coffee and Climate Change Adaptation

Writing at Yahoo! Finance, Rick Newman noted that soaring coffee prices and declining coffee quality may just be what it takes to start a movement to “fix climate change.” In truth, however, most people in the coffee industry – while advocating for policies to slow the rising temperatures and tides – are most focused on how the coffee farmers can adapt their practices and their crops to a changing climate. The issue is that there are only so many things the industry and farmers can do.

Some coffee farmers focus on breeding new strains of coffee that are more resistant to roya or that can withstand higher nighttime temperatures. This isn’t anything new. Many of today’s favorite coffee varieties were deliberately bred for just those reasons, as early as the late 1700s. The problem, of course, is that the hardiest types of coffee – generally coffee robusta and coffee liberica – are more likely to carry objectionable flavor profiles. Still, these adaptations – both natural ones and those fostered through cross-breeding – are probably the best strategy to keep the coffee industry viable on a rapidly warming planet.

And let’s not get it twisted here. Coffee as most people know it isn’t about to disappear in your lifetime or mine – but the race to keep coffee farmers ahead of global warming is very likely to impact what you pay for your morning cup of wake-up. If you care at all about your coffee, it may be time to wake up and smell the climate change coffee.


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