The Strategist

The End of Coffee Era

08/31/2015 - 15:55

Droughts, floods, epidemics, and the entire process of global climate change threatens to destroy the source of our morning caffeine. What fate awaits the coffee?

Cristoph/ Pixabay
Cristoph/ Pixabay
When we read a newspaper while sipping a morning latte or espresso, global climate change sometimes seem a very distant and vague threat. However, if you drive off for several thousand kilometers - where coffee trees grow - the situation seems quite different.

Take, for example, coffee farmers in Chiapas, Mexico, to whom a researcher Elisa Frank of the University of California at Santa Barbara recently talked. They say they have never seen such heavy rains flooding coffee plantations.

- When we were kids, there was less rain, - said one of the farmers. Now the trees produce worse. The leaves and berries are falling because of the humidity.

In areas where the climate was mild and stable before, temperature changes are observed now: the cold prevents growth, and the heat dries the coffee berries before they mature enough to be collected.

Hurricanes and landslides come, sometimes entire plantations are buried under a mudslide. "The weather is very strange. Some strange things, which we have not seen before, happen here"- sums up a farmer.

Coffee shortage?

These problems are not limited to Mexico. Farmers across South America, Africa and Asia are watching as their coffee trees wither: as a result of global warming, they are affected by droughts, floods and pests.

The consequences of these troubles may soon appear at your local coffee shop. Now the world is daily consuming two billion cups of coffee. How to ensure that supplies are uninterrupted, beyond the control of the bad weather and crops?

In addition, what do we do, if farmers do not keep up with demand and there is lack of coffee?

Some observers believe that all our attempts to deal with these difficulties can only lead to further environmental problems. Others believe that the only acceptable way is to replace our usual type of coffee.

Whatever it is, it is better to enjoy the taste of fresh espresso now, because the days of coffee, as we know it, may be numbered.

The problem largely lies in the refinement of our taste. There are two commercial varieties of coffee: more flavorful Arabica and more strong and bitter Robusta.

Arabica, due to its delicate aroma, is much more popular: about 70% coffee in the world falls on it.

For a rich bouquet, so beloved by coffee people, Arabica pays with lack of physical endurance: this variety is much more sensitive to growing conditions than Robusta.

BBC Magazine recently published a great deal of material on this subject, which, in particular, explained that almost all the trees of Arabica, used in the commercial production of coffee, were originally derived from a very small number of saplings, taken from the mountainous regions of Ethiopia - therefore genes sets in all of these plants are very similar, which makes them poorly adaptable and particularly vulnerable to climate change.
These trees grow best in a very narrow range of moderate temperatures (about 18 to 22 degrees Celsius) and need regular, but not too abundant rainfall.

- They require a special climate that exists only in certain defined areas of the world - says Christian Bunn from the Berlin Humboldt University.

By that, coffee is very different from other crops, such as corn, which were selected purposefully to improve its resistance to different growing conditions for thousands of years.  

Delicate Arabica trees cannot cope with a new, unpredictable weather caused by global warming. For example, temperature increase in Mexico seems to cause more heavy rains, do not allow trees to set fruits.

- A coffee bush blooms just 48 hours, so, for example, if a strong thunderstorm runs during the flowering period, then the entire crop is lost," - explains Ainhoa Magrach of Institute of terrestrial ecosystems in Zurich, Switzerland.

Other parts of the world experience entire opposite problem: drought.

Charity organization Oxfam conducted a survey of coffee growers in the mountains of the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda, and they told that flowers sluff out from coffee trees in the hot and dry seasons, not turning into berries. Even when there are fruits, they grow small and shriveled.

In addition, hot climates breed well enemies of coffee tree - leaf-mining flies, coffee bugs, mealybugs and fungi pathogens of leaf rust. All of them are harmful to crops.

With recent epidemic of leaf rust in 2013, harvest in Central America fell by 20% - with further warming, such cases may become more frequent.

It is not easy to calculate the potential losses in the long term – single causes sometimes are difficult to be distinguished from sustainable trends. However, considering the statistics on the coffee growing in Tanzania from 1960, one group of researchers found that yields declined from a peak of 500 kilograms per hectare to the current 300 kilograms.

What is important here is that the drop in yields clearly coincides with the gradual increase of average temperatures by about 0.3 degrees per decade, with a corresponding decrease in rainfall.

The picture for the future doesn’t look good. On the basis of the latest data on the pace of global climate change, Christian Bunn predicts that the area suitable for the cultivation of Arabica in 2050 could fall by half.

Regions with a long tradition of growing coffee, such as Vietnam, India and much of Central America, may be highly affected too.

The consequences would be serious both for farmers and for coffee lovers. Bunn has estimated that by 2050, coffee prices could rise by about a quarter, making it less affordable for the masses.

According to the expert, such a price increase would be even more noticeable compared to other crops, the cost of which falls as technologies improve their cultivation and growth of crops.

If we take this into account, it can be assumed that coffee would be half as more expensive than without the influence of global climate change.

Although, farmers' incomes are unlikely to grow. After years of turmoil, many of them may well switch to growing crops that are more predictable.

- When we show results of our research to coffee producers, we are told that everything is true: people in low-lying areas of Central America has already gave up to grow it - notes Bunn. - All are switching to rubber trees."

However, the potential benefits are sure to attract new entrepreneurs to the coffee production - this can hit hard on the ecosystem of the planet.

Magrach recently mapped the regions of the world, suitable for the cultivation of Arabica, and compared them with areas representing environmental interest.

In the worst-case scenario, she said, 2.2 million hectares of tropical forests would be destroyed to meet the demand. This will lead to a significant reduction of biodiversity.

Perhaps there is a more acceptable solution. The more persistent Robusta coffee endures climate change better – according to Magrach, rising temperatures may even contribute to the expansion of a suitable environment for the sort.

In this case, we can dodge the coffee crisis by shifting to Robusta - if coffee drinkers are ready to face up to its bitterness and less delicacy.

Some experts hope that improved methods of growing coffee will keep yields.

Established in 2010, the initiative group "Coffee & Climate" brings together more than a dozen major manufacturers, allowing them to share their experiences to counter climate change.

For example, vaccinating Arabica sprouts to Robusta tree roots, thus producing drought-resistant hybrid that retains the desired flavor, is offered as one of the options.

Research is being conducted in the area of selection - experts hope to grow the variety that combines the best qualities of Robusta and Arabica.

So far, farmers have to live in uncertainty, as polls, held in Mexico by Elisa Frank show. And it is not the most pleasant feeling.

Many of them listen to weather reports on the TV and try to prepare for the showers. Still, generally they feel like playthings of powerful natural forces, with which they are not able to fight.

Some farmers now prefer to bypass the general theme. "We have said very little about the climate, - he admitted one of them. - We understand how things work – and cannot help it."

Original by David Robson, BBC Future