When botanist Aaron Davis published a 2012 study that predicted global warming could cause the demise of a wild plant species by the year 2080, he was taken aback by the massive public interest that followed—it’s not like it's new news that climate change threatens a great number of species with extinction.
But he and his colleagues weren’t talking about just any plant. They were talking about Coffea arabica, the tree responsible for about 70% of the more than 2 billion cups of coffee a day consumed around the world and essentially all of the high-quality, aromatic specialty beans that American coffee snobs obsess about.
Davis’s study, combined with events in the two years since, served as a wakeup call for the coffee industry.
"If things continue like this, maybe 50 years from now, we’ll all be tea drinkers. I don’t know if it’ll happen that quickly. But it could be 100 years," says Leo Lombardini, deputy director of World Coffee Research, an industry-funded program formed in 2012 and based at Texas A&M University.
Around that year was the beginnings of an outbreak of the debilitating fungus called coffee rust that has now caused more than $1 billion in economic damage in Latin America since 2012 (The U.S. Agency for International Development has called it a crisis for small-scale farmers in the region). While coffee rust has plagued coffee growers for centuries, the recent damage, spurred by several unusually wet years, had been worst-ever for the region. Soon after, earlier this year, the worst drought in decades hit Brazil, the largest coffee exporting nation in the world and the producer of about half of the world’s Arabica supply.
The real fear for coffee lovers is that climate change could amplify these kinds of outbreaks and droughts even more in the future, as precipitation extremes become the norm. And as global temperatures rise, the delicate Arabica plant, which grows on the cool slopes of mountains, will be pushed up to higher elevations. In some places—like Ethiopia, where the wild Arabica species originates—there may eventually be no higher refuges left.
Davis, who is head of coffee research at the U.K.'s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was asked many questions when his study predicting Arabica’s extinction came out in 2012. "Journalists asked us: What are you going to do about it? That really threw me, and it started us thinking—what would we do? What could we do?"
There’s more than 100 species of coffee trees, but only two—Arabica and Robusta—produce beans we use to make beverages. Robusta tastes more bitter, has more caffeine, and is less refined; today it’s used mostly in cheaper or instant coffees, whereas chains like Starbucks only buy Arabica, a species that evolved in Ethiopia’s highlands and made its way by trade to the Middle East. That’s where the earliest coffee culture took root.
Experts believe that if the Arabica supply significantly dwindles in the future, some buyers may turn more to the stronger Robusta beans (Robusta grows in flat lands like Vietnam, and is cheaper to grow and more climate change resilient). Others brands that demand higher quality may simply pay more for Arabica beans, and eventually face the choice of either raising their own prices or absorbing the extra costs into their bottom line. This year, for example, with the drought in Brazil reducing supplies, the price of commodity Arabica coffee beans has almost doubled. Citing high prices for green (unroasted) coffee among several factors, one major company, Keurig Green Mountain, announced last week it would raise prices by up to 9% for many of its coffee products.
The challenge with growing coffee is that it’s somewhat unique among the world’s major commodity crops: It’s almost exclusively grown in developing countries—often by poor, small-holding farmers—and is almost exclusively purchased and consumed as a product in richer ones. That disconnect has resulted in a dearth of large-scale, collaborative research into best production practices and crop improvement efforts, says Lombardini, at least relative to the huge value of the global coffee market. The industry is now aiming to make up for lost time.
Among the most interesting of these efforts is Starbucks’s decision last year to buy its first farm. The company isn’t getting into the business of growing its own coffee supplies. What it does want to do at Hacienda Alsacia, a nearly 600-acre coffee plantation in Costa Rica that stretches across a 500-meter elevation range, is run an R&D lab for coffee producers and supplement the six farmer support centers it already operates in coffee regions around the world.
"We bought it because we always knew we would learn more with our hands in the dirt, and with our agronomists learning first-hand, both in terms of experimentation with new farming practices and research on coffee plants," says Craig Russell, executive vice president for global coffee at Starbucks.
The farm was a fixer-upper when Starbucks became the owner, and the company is slowly making improvements as it prepares for the first harvest this year. Importantly, it has decided it won’t invest any more resources than a small-holding farmer would, since this is the main audience for its advice and demonstrations.
At Alsacia, Starbucks is also working to develop and test better Arabica varieties that optimize for disease resistance, productivity, and quality-related traits. Building from a decade of earlier work from Alsacia’s agronomist Carlos Mario, it’s getting ready to release its first commercial seed variety later this year through the Costa Rican Coffee Institute. The seed will be available "open-source" to any farmer who wants to use it, says Russell.
Russell emphasizes that Starbucks is only using traditional breeding methods, not controversial genetically modification techniques. In fact, given its reliance on consumer tastes, the industry as a whole seems to have sworn off GMOs as an option, says Lombardini.
However, one problem with relying on natural genetic variability is the relatively low diversity of the Arabica species, which emerged in Ethiopia only relatively recently by evolutionary standards. "Essentially, they’re all cousins," says Lombardini.
At World Coffee Research, scientists instead have been screening the genes in a trove of wild coffee plants collected in Ethiopia in the 1950s (In more recent decades, Ethiopia has stopped allowing foreign researchers to export valuable plant materials). Their goal is to find other candidates among dozens of other coffee species with desirable traits and, using conventional plant breeding tactics, create a tastier, more resilient coffee crop. This year, the researchers plan to work with Starbucks to begin testing 30 newly developed hybrid crops at Hacienda Alsacia.
Many large coffee buyers know that before rising global temperatures really cause large problems for the coffee crop itself, it’s the small farmers—who make up 90% of coffee production—that are going to be hurt first. That could cause even bigger disruptions to the global coffee market.
The recent outbreak of coffee rust in Central America, which coincided with a period of low coffee prices that made it hard for farmers to invest in fertilizer and other farm improvements, provides an example, says Lindsey Bolger, Keurig Green Mountain’s vice president of coffee sourcing and head coffee buyer. "The coffee environment was in a weakened state as this rust situation began to escalate. We know that soil health was depleted, we know that farmers were caring for their coffee plants as much as they possible could, but with limited resources. That really complicated the farmers’ ability to...mitigate what really became a wide-scale outbreak," she says.
Buyers like Bolger are worried that, if it becomes too hard for farmers’ to make a living growing coffee during a period of hardship, many might turn to other crops or income sources, permanently taking their lands out of production. "While we can continue to do what we can to mitigate the changing climate, for the smallholder farmers in our supply chain, this is a moment they need to start thinking about adaptation. It’s hard to rollback the changes that are happening globally," she says. "We need coffee farming to stay economically viable."
Like Starbucks, Keurig Green Mountain is getting more and more involved with farmers, recently participating in a partnership with Root Capital, USAID, and others called the Coffee Farmer Resilience Fund that has already helped send some $23 million in financial assistance to coffee growers combating the rust epidemic.
As with many effects related to climate change, the story of how the average coffee drinker will be affected is complicated. Some consumers that already buy relatively expensive coffee may never see the impact at all in their morning brew. But the millions of small-scale farmers who grow the crop all of over the world surely will, as will the growing number of coffee drinkers in emerging markets, like Brazil and China.
For Davis, the questions asked after his 2012 work set off another major study into adaptations strategies that could build a "climate-resilient coffee economy" in Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee and a major coffee producer today. He and a multi-disciplinary team of researchers are busy creating a detailed map of today’s coffee-producing zones and how those might change in the future. He hopes his project will create a blueprint for other coffee producing nations to recreate.
In the U.S., we may just have to become even more choosy drinkers. Texas A&M’s Lombardini was recently shopping at Ikea, when he noticed some coffee on the shelf for a pretty good price of $3.50 a pound. Like some Ikea furniture, the catch was the quality. He noticed it was an Arabica/Robusta blend.
"I immediately put it back on the shelf," he says.