As someone who has been part of the coffee industry for decades, I’ve come to deeply appreciate the art and science of coffee cultivation, processing, and brewing. Coffee, like wine, is a product of its environment – an expression of the soil and climate in which it grows. Consequently, any change in the environment, specifically climate change, could alter the characteristics of our beloved drink, and as recent scientific reports suggest, not in a desirable way.
In the recent years, climate change’s impacts have become increasingly prominent. Rising global temperatures, altered rainfall patterns, and increasing frequency of extreme weather events are just some examples of the challenges climate-related changes pose. When it comes to coffee, these changes are threatening the very survival of the plant and the quality of its beans.
The Science Behind the Beans
Coffee is a fickle crop, thriving in specific conditions. It prefers a stable climate with temperatures between 60°F and 70°F, ample rainfall, rich soils, and high altitude. Change any of these variables significantly, and you put the entire crop at risk.
Climate change is doing just that, and research indicates that the land suitable for coffee cultivation could decrease by 50% by 2050. Areas at lower altitudes are already experiencing temperatures that exceed the heat tolerance of coffee plants. At the same time, rising temperatures also aid the proliferation of pests and diseases, like the devastating coffee leaf rust, which can wipe out entire farms.
However, there is a rare wild coffee from West Africa called Stenophylla that can grow in warmer conditions and tastes like Arabica coffee. As temperatures rise, good coffee will become increasingly difficult to grow, and studies suggest that by 2050, about half of land used for high-quality coffee will be usable for that purpose. To find a wild coffee that tastes great and is heat and drought tolerant is “the holy grail of coffee breeding”. Further research is proposed for developing new coffee varieties adapted to agroforestry systems (exhibiting traits suitable for climate stressors), refining extension tools by selecting locally-adapted shade trees species, and developing farming policy and economic incentives so coffee farmers adopt these sustainable practices.
On the other side of the coin, altered rainfall patterns are causing periods of severe drought followed by intense rainfall. This not only effectively destroys the yield but also messes up the quality of the beans, leading to inconsistent flavors and increased acidity.
Implications for the Coffee Shop
The coffee industry is a delicate ecosystem, with small farms in developing countries producing a significant amount of the world’s coffee. The repercussions of climate change mean not only a reduction in global coffee production but also economic instability for these coffee-growing communities.
For us in the coffee shop business, the dwindling supply of coffee coupled with inconsistent quality could translate into a rise in costs, both for procuring green beans and ensuring they meet our quality standards. This might lead to an adjustment in our product offerings or a reconsideration of our supply chain, potentially seeking beans from new, cooler regions.
Unfortunately, while we try to support sustainable farming practices and pay fair prices to our farmers, the rising costs will inevitably be reflected in retail prices. But let’s not forget, coffee shops are about more than just a cup of coffee – they are about community, connection, and culture. Our responsibility is to educate ourselves about this impending challenge and foster a sense of collective action.
What This Means for You, the Coffee Drinker
As consumers, we’ll feel the impact of climate change on coffee in two significant ways – a potential rise in the cost of our daily brew, and a shift in the taste profile we’ve come to know and love.
You may have to pay a little extra for your espresso or latte, as we try to balance rising procurement costs while maintaining the livelihoods of our coffee farmers. However, remember that every cup you purchase goes towards supporting the resilient coffee communities grappling with climate change, when you buy sustainable coffee.
As for taste, the beans that once yielded a consistent, familiar flavor may start to taste a little different. But isn’t this also the beauty of coffee? Its flavor, a direct reflection of its terroir, tells a story. Now it narrates the tale of a changing climate. And perhaps, there is a silver lining – we might discover new flavors from regions previously unsuitable for coffee cultivation.
Stepping Forward, Together
Navigating this climate-induced alteration to the world of coffee is a shared responsibility. The coffee professionals, commit to sourcing sustainably grown coffee, supporting initiatives that help farmers adapt to climate change, and continuing the dialogue with their customers.
You, as consumers, can contribute by choosing to patronize coffee shops and brands that prioritize sustainable practices and by being open to changes in flavors and new experiences. It’s also an opportunity to deepen your understanding of coffee, its origins, and its challenges, and to share this knowledge with others.
Climate change is not just about coffee; it’s a global issue that affects us all. But as we sip our morning brew (in one of our mugs), let’s remember the intricate web of nature and human effort that brings us this simple pleasure. The impacts of climate change on coffee present us with a unique opportunity – a chance to foster a more sustainable and resilient coffee industry and, indeed, a more sustainable world. Together, we can ensure that coffee continues to thrive, stimulating our mornings and conversations for generations to come.