Trouble’s brewing from the coffee farm to the local Starbucks, and it’s time for everyone who cares about this worldwide staple to wake up and smell the…
….impact of climate change.
“As temperatures rise and droughts intensify, good coffee will become increasingly difficult to grow and expensive to buy,” wrote Time magazine’s Justin Worland. “Since governments are reacting slowly to the problem, companies like Starbucks have stepped in to save themselves, reaching to the bottom of their supply chains to ensure reliable access to their product.”
The seriousness of the threat that climate change poses to the coffee industry is clear from a growing number of studies. They make the case that rising temperatures will bring drought, increase the range of diseases, and kill large swaths of the insects that pollinate coffee plants. Citing a recent study in the journal Climatic Change, Worland reported that about half of the land used to produce high-quality coffee could be unproductive by 2050. Another paper, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that that number could be as high as 88 percent in Latin America.
Most major American retailers, including Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks, sell Arabica coffee. It grows in a narrow region of the tropics known as the Coffee Belt, which stretches from Central America to sub-Saharan Africa to Asia. “Conditions must be just right or a harvest is lost,” Worland wrote.
“In the past, some areas occasionally experienced off years because of a bad storm or a temperature fluctuation. Researchers say that in the future such challenges will be constant. Farmers in some regions will be able to adapt by growing at higher elevations, but in others there is nowhere else to go. Entire regions risk becoming unable to continue producing Arabica coffee, and (Starbucks founder Howard) Schultz and others say there’s no way to make the more resilient Robusta variety, which is sometimes blended with Arabica to make instant coffee, palatable to the broad coffee-drinking public.”
"There is a whole lot more at stake here than: Is my nice espresso in New York going to get more expensive?” said Taylor Ricketts, the director of the University of Vermont's Gund Institute for Environment, in an NPR interview. “Climate change is going to threaten this primary livelihood for millions of people in vulnerable communities all over the world."
What then? Lauren Markham, a writer who focuses on issues involving forced migration, visited Jumaytepeque, a Guatemalan town in Central America’s dry corridor. “A group of farmers took me to see their coffee crops. Coffee was responsible for the majority of the community’s income but had been decimated by a plague known as coffee rust, or la roya,” she wrote in a New York Times op-ed. “Plagues like these aren’t necessarily caused by climate change, but it exacerbates them, and roya is now infecting plants at higher elevations as those heights become warmer. Making matters worse, stress from the drought has made these plants more vulnerable to the plague.”
Worland’s story in Time reported that stem rust cut coffee production in Central America by about 15 percent in the 2012–13 growing year, and that, due in large part to rust, the price of a pound of coffee for U.S. consumers climbed 33 percent between 2011 and 2013.
“We can’t make a living purely off coffee anymore,” one young farmer told Markham, pointing to the limp, yellow roya-pocked leaves on his land. Young people like him, he told her, either move to the cities and try to make a go of it amid the gang violence, “or they go north,” he said, to the United States.
In other words, our failure to tackle climate change affects much more than the price of your morning cup. The most promising remedy? Economists recommend putting a price on the carbon that is driving the rapid change in our climate. Congress needs to wake up and enact a carbon fee.