Originally posted here in Nov 2019.
The Earth, as powerful and all-encompassing as it is, is a fragile and vulnerable planet with delicate ecosystems. It gives and gives and asks for little in return. Each morning, many of its inhabitants open their eyes, mix ground coffee beans and hot water, and find inspiration and awakening through the resulting drink.
Worryingly, climate change places the daily joy of coffee under threat. In this article, we are going to explore these threats, look at what major studies are saying, explore the thoughts of some industry experts, and see both how and why the coffee industry is pivoting to adapt.
What are the main threats to our beloved bean?
Scientists have been hard at work around the world, studying in different climates, digging through many soil types, climbing to varying altitudes and researching through all of the seasons, in order to understand exactly what climate change could do the coffee growing industry. Their results are conclusive:
- Rising temperatures will lead to drought
- Drought will increase the range of diseases
- Large amounts of pests will grow to attack the vulnerable crops
- Many helpful insects (such as bees) will die, affecting the pollination cycle
- Changing seasons will lead to irregular and unpredictable yields
Five years ago, Brazil and Vietnam, the world’s two biggest coffee producers, were hit by massive yield shortages. In one major Brazilian growing state, wet season rainfall was down 90%. At the exact same time, high heat and heavy rainfall in other regions led to leaf rust fungus, causing hundreds of millions of pounds in losses. Arabica bean shortages led to the price of coffee doubling in that year and served as a warning and indicator to the future about what could happen.
Leaf rust fungus on a coffee plant
What do the studies say?
The following information from the Climatic Change Journal is alarming; about half of the land currently used for coffee production around the world could be unproductive and out of business by 2050. If you think that’s bad, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences predicts a future far worse: ‘Our results suggest that coffee-suitable areas will be reduced 73–88% by 2050 across warming scenarios, a decline 46–76% greater than estimated by global assessments.’
The ‘roughly half by 2050’ figure is agreed upon by several research institutes, with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) being in accordance. In their research, it is the higher quality beans that will suffer the most because they grow best in a narrow temperature window of 17-21℃. Few places on Earth allow for optimal coffee growth, such as Brazil, Vietnam, East Africa, Colombia, and Indonesia, so for these regions to be at high risk from climate change is worrying for coffee lovers. Brazil is expected to be the biggest loser over the next 30 years, with around 80% of suitable growing land to be lost.
The studies are all in agreement when it comes to what we need to do. We must cut our greenhouse gas emissions and try to reduce these dire consequences. What the studies don’t say is that the abandoning of coffee farms is already taking place. In Peru, some coffee farmers have already ditched the crop, blaming the combination of pests, diseases, heat, and drought, combining to produce low-quality and low-quantity yields.
What do the experts say?
The opinion of scientists is highly valued, but it’s sometimes not what society listens to most. In the modern world, it is the CEOs, celebrities, and notable figures whose voices are best heard, so we’ve collected a few key thoughts to enlighten you about the opinion from within the industry.
Sanjayan is the CEO of Conservation International, as well as being a scientist, writer, and news figure. He plays a key role in preserving life on Earth through his work, and even he stated: “Everybody talks about climate, but the only sector that’s actually doing something at scale is the coffee industry”. Perhaps there is hope.
Daniele Giovannucci is the President of the Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA) which looks at measuring sustainability in agriculture. He believes that the coffee-growing industry has suffered from a short-term thinking problem that has held it back from embracing sustainability.
“The key has been a declining income and more aggressive production systems requiring greater investment and risks. In real-dollar prices, farmers earn less than they did decades ago. Without an economic foundation, it is difficult to conceive of thriving farming communities that can be the basis for a diversified and growing industry. There are visionary leaders who believe that sustainability is the basis of long-term profit and are running their firms that way. Yet, some of the large firms in coffee lack any vision except for the uninspiring one of maximizing their short-term profit.”
Catherine David is the Head of Commercial Partnerships at Fairtrade, she said "While now coffee sales have grown and it's a very popular product and we can pick up coffee in all different price ranges, I think if we don't invest now then coffee could become a luxury, longer-term. Because if 50% of land currently used for coffee isn't going to be suitable for it by 2050, and coffee farmers are abandoning their farms, there simply won't be enough coffee, and so we could, conceivably, get to a point where coffee is no longer available for, say, £1.50 at Greggs, but becomes a premium product for only those who can afford to enjoy it. It really is a crisis we are facing and I think it's one that, if the UK public were more aware of, they'd be pretty scandalised that brands, retailers and coffee shops that they are buying their coffee from aren't doing more."
Weighing coffee beans by the gram
How is the industry changing?
It’s never too late for change and the coffee industry knows that it must do everything it can to respond in force, with technologies, resources, experts, and ideas. Coffee companies are sending in their best minds to help their farms make adaptive changes, learning to grow different strains, to monitor weather and climate conditions, and to understand and influence agricultural practices.
Don’t think for one second that the Starbucks, Costas, and Neros of this world want coffee production to halt for just one second. CIAT and World Coffee Research are also working hard to limit land loss. Coming together, the entire industry is working to:
- Introduce shading strategies
- Breed more resilient beans
- Find natural ways of controlling pests
- Be more sustainable and present more sustainable coffees
- Find smarter production methods
Does the coffee industry have any choice but to change?
For the coffee industry, it’s either change or be changed. The latter is a scary proposition not only for the industry but for the millions of people who enjoy coffee each morning. The threat that climate change presents to coffee drinkers in the short term is that it will rise in price, turning from a commodity into a luxury. In years to come, that luxury may be in even more limited supply.
The coffee production sector has a huge task on its hands, trying to juggle the environment, quality, quantity, and pricing, all in a time of great uncertainty. It’s time to help the Earth so that the Earth can help to provide the coffee.
Our role and responsibility
We purchase coffee from farms to put in our capsules, so we have an important role in the theme of this article. Whilst we are not farmers ourselves, we do have the power to choose which farms and partners we procure coffee beans from. This allows us to make sustainable decisions in our supply chain. Take our Daterra Moonlight coffee for example, we have sourced this from the first coffee farm in the world to be awarded a Rainforest Alliance Sustainability A Grade.
What truly sets Ola apart though, is our 100% home-compostable coffee capsules which are helping to reduce the carbon footprint of coffee and make one of the nation’s favourite drinks to be more sustainable.