Climate Change & Coffee: Brewing a Sustainable Future

Climate Change And Coffee

The Impact of Climate Change on Coffee

Did you know that your cup of coffee could be at risk due to climate change? Today, we’re diving into the challenges faced by the coffee industry and exploring what we can do to protect our beloved coffee.

Coffee and Environmental Sensitivity

The coffee industry is highly vulnerable to climate change, as coffee plants are sensitive to environmental factors such as water stress, increased temperatures, and carbon dioxide levels. These factors can reduce the quality and flavour of coffee beans. Climate change has already started causing problems for coffee producers, affecting both the supply chain and the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. As climate change progresses, it is predicted to have serious economic impacts on the global coffee industry, which is worth over US$100 billion at the farm gate and US$10 billion in the retail sector.

Furthermore, climate change is already impacting coffee production in countries like Ethiopia, where it provides a livelihood for nearly 15 million people. The industry faces additional challenges, such as the migration of young farmers to urban areas and the aging population of coffee farmers, further exacerbating the crisis.

Diseased Coffee Cherries
Diseased Coffee Cherries

Coffee’s Economic and Cultural Significance

Coffee holds a significant place in the global economy, as the second most traded product after oil, coffee has been a key driver of the global economy since its expansion in the 16th century. Over 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed daily, further emphasizing its economic importance. In addition to its economic significance, coffee has a rich cultural impact on communities around the world. Coffee-drinking customs and rituals vary across different cultures, showcasing the diverse ways in which people enjoy and appreciate the beverage.

The relationship between culture, values, and individual preferences has been explored by economists, highlighting the reciprocal influence between economy and culture. Coffee is deeply embedded in the social fabric of various cultures, bringing people together and playing a vital role in shaping our identities.

Challenges to Coffee Quality

Climate change poses significant risks to the coffee industry, as factors such as water stress, increased temperatures, and carbon dioxide can negatively affect coffee quality. Arabica coffee, which accounts for over 60% of the world’s coffee production, has limited resilience to climate change, and farmers are already experiencing its effects. One consequence of climate change is the proliferation of pests and diseases that thrive in warmer and more humid conditions.

For example, brown eye spot fungus, which causes small brown spots to form on coffee leaves and can lead to premature ripening of the beans, thrives in high humidity and rain. Coffee Leaf Rust causes yellow-orange spots, defoliation, reduced photosynthesis, and may destroy harvests if untreated. Many coffee-producing regions are increasingly experiencing changing climate conditions that impact coffee’s taste and aroma, raising concerns about yields and sustainability.

By 2050, a decline in the number of regions suitable for coffee cultivation is expected, and growing seasons in much of sub-Saharan Africa are projected to be more than 20 percent shorter by 2100. Rising global temperatures and increasingly extreme and unpredictable weather patterns also threaten the livelihoods of coffee farmers worldwide.

External Factors and Climate Change

These unpredictable weather conditions caused by climate change will also impact harvesting and processing. For example, cherries may split on the tree, lose their mucilage, or ferment during processing. Rising costs and market instability create purchasing challenges for producers, leading some manufacturers to seek less expensive, substitute varieties of beans that can be blended to produce similar flavours.

Coffee growers in some regions face additional challenges such as attacks by armed groups, flooding, mudslides, and the effects of health crises like the Ebola epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic. Low incomes make coffee farming unprofitable and unattractive to younger generations, leading to an aging coffee farmer population with an average age of about 60 years. These challenges have a significant impact on the lives of coffee farmers worldwide, whether they own large farms or are smallholders producing a limited quantity of coffee each year.

Adapting to Climate Change: Solutions for the Coffee Industry

To combat these challenges, the industry can take several steps:

  • Encourage the adoption of sustainable and climate-resilient practices among coffee growers through certification programs such as Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, and UTZ. These programs incentivize environmentally friendly practices and ensure fair compensation for farmers.
  • Utilize technological advancements, such as precision agriculture, satellite imagery, and advanced weather forecasting, to help coffee farmers better adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Real-time information on weather patterns, soil conditions, and pest populations can enable farmers to make informed decisions about crop management.
  • Explore the potential for gene editing technologies, like CRISPR, and traditional breeding programs to develop coffee varieties with improved resilience to climate change. This might include traits such as drought resistance, heat tolerance, or resistance to pests and diseases.
  • Highlight the importance of choosing sustainable, ethically sourced coffee for consumers, as their preferences can drive industry-wide changes and support the adoption of climate-resilient practices within the industry.
  • Encourage cooperation between governments, NGOs, research institutions, and the coffee industry to effectively address the challenges posed by climate change. Sharing knowledge, resources, and best practices can support the development and adoption of climate-resilient practices in coffee-growing regions.
Benefits of Shade Grown Coffee Infographic
Benefits of Shade Grown Coffee

Innovative Practices in Coffee Farming

Enhancing the climate resilience of coffee production requires adopting sustainable management practices that can support the livelihoods of over 25 million people worldwide. Coffee can be grown under shade, which offers additional opportunities to enhance tree cover and store carbon in the landscape. Windbreaks, for example, protect coffee trees from strong storms.

Embracing new, coffee varieties such as Coffea stenophylla, a rare and valuable coffee species native to West Africa, known for its disease resistance and ability to thrive in warmer conditions, could be a way forward. By promoting sustainable and climate-resilient practices, we can help ensure a sustainable and thriving coffee industry for future generations.

Conclusion: Brewing a Sustainable Coffee Future

Understanding the challenges and potential solutions related to climate change is vital for ensuring a sustainable future for coffee. By taking action now, we can work together to protect our coffee and the millions of livelihoods it supports. Whether you’re a coffee enthusiast, grower, or industry professional, we all have a role to play in addressing the impacts of climate change on the coffee industry. Together, we can brew a more sustainable and resilient future for coffee.