The threat of climate change looms ever larger over the coffee industry

The last couple of months have surely been a stark reminder of the climate threats the planet is facing, between the soaring temperatures across Europe in July, record breaking heat in Death Valley, California, and the devastating wildfires in Rhodes, Tenerife and notably Hawaii. What were previously tenaciously waved red flags, have seemingly morphed into giant flashing neon warning signs for many, showing us a taste of the extreme weather that will continue to escalate as global temperatures rise.

While this increasingly extreme weather may have been a wakeup call for some, World Coffee Research (WCR) has long anticipated these threats and is on a mission to mitigate the effects these changes will have, and is having, on our coffee industry, by breeding and growing more climate resistant coffee species. Yesterday, WCR shared an article on its LinkedIn page, published by the Financial Times, titled ‘Have we reached peak coffee?’

Coffee consumption is on the rise, the article detailed, with a rapidly growing market among ‘new consumers’ in China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, this demand is outpacing supply, with warming temperatures threatening up to half of current coffee farmland, and fluctuating harvests forcing farmers to abandon the industry for a more stable income.

Vanusia Nogueira, executive director of the International Coffee Organization (ICO) noted in the piece that coffee may be forced to become a luxury commodity or endure a significant hit to its quality if the deficit continues.

Meanwhile, Jennifer ‘Vern’ Long, chief executive of WCR explained how the challenge comes from coffee being a plant that loves ‘perfect’ or ‘Goldilocks’ weather with just the right temperatures and rainfall, which are the fragile conditions being threatened by climate change. Areas that are currently ideal for coffee growing, known as the coffee belt, are decreasing in their suitability, with areas previously unsuited, to the north or south of this belt, beginning to be more suitable for growing coffee. However, any shift in location would affect the livelihoods of innumerable communities across the coffee belt that are reliant on coffee growing for their economy.

Since so much of the retail value of coffee is held in the higher-income countries which import the coffee, the coffee-farming communities do not have the resources or resilience to hold fast against these climate-induced challenges. The future of coffee hangs in the balance unless there is a redistribution of the risk and profit in the industry as a whole so that coffee farming remains a desirable and reliable practice for those communities, emphasised Daniele Giovannucci, founder of the Committeee on Sustainability Assessment, in the article.

Alongside this rethink of coffee pricing, ought to be a revaluation of the coffee plants themselves. While there are 130 species of coffee discovered in the wild, only arabica and robusta are used for the world’s coffee consumption, which significantly increases the vulnerability of the plant.

At World of Coffee Athens in June, Emilia Umaña, WCR nursery development manager, explained in her presentation that World Coffee Research is a collective investment in the future of coffee by the coffee industry. The work WCR does is to breed varieties that wouldn’t normally meet naturally, in order to cultivate certain advantageous characteristics, notably resistance to drought and high temperatures, to safeguard the future of the coffee industry. WCR has over 170 members in 30 countries and relies on these multinational links in its research. Numerous factors such as altitude, soil type, etc., as well as climate, necessarily impact the characteristics of coffee plants grown there, so the same variant may differ in each location. Which is why thorough testing internationally is essential.

Drastic changes to the way we grow, trade, and consume coffee might well be on the horizon, which is why change is rapidly needed to meet the ever-growing demand from the threatened supply. Work that the WCR is doing provides options to farmers, but they must be supported and incentivised by the corporations dominating the rest of the supply chain for coffee farming to continue being a worthwhile and viable livelihood.

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