climate change

Half the World’s Coffee Growing Regions Could Be Gone By 2050

A new report from The Climate Institute in Australia sounds the alarm that coffee as we know it—cheap, ubiquitous, and largely taken for granted—could become a precious commodity in the future.

by Wyatt Marshall
31 August 2016, 9:00am

If you rely on coffee to get you through the day, there's bad news brewing. Climate change could cut the area suitable for growing coffee in half by 2050.

A new report from The Climate Institute in Australia sounds the alarm that coffee as we know it—cheap, ubiquitous, and largely taken for granted—could become a precious commodity in the future. Currently, the majority of the world's supply of coffee comes from the "bean belt," a group of countries near the equator, including Brazil, Ethiopia, Colombia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. But as climate change raises temperatures and changes rainfall patterns, much of the current land that produces coffee could become unsuitable for growing coffee beans. By 2080, wild coffee could be extinct.

Coffee titans like Starbucks and Lavazza have been warning about the effects climate change could have on coffee production. People are drinking more coffee than ever—2.25 billion cups a day—and consumption grows by 5 percent every year.

"We have a cloud hovering over our head," Mario Cerutti of Italian coffee producer Lavazza said at a conference about coffee and climate change in Milan last year. "It's dramatically serious. Climate change can have a significant adverse effect in the short term. It's no longer about the future; it's the present."

Just half a degree change in temperature can "make a big difference in coffee yield, flavour, and aroma," the report says. Rising temperatures also exacerbate diseases and pest problems. In 2012, after heavy high-altitude rains and unseasonably warm weather, a disease called coffee leaf rust wiped out about half of Central America's coffee crop, including 85 percent of the crop in Guatemala. The coffee berry borer, a pest that does a half billion dollars in damage to crops annually and that was once limited to the Congo and to low elevations, is now found in higher coffee growing regions and could explode in numbers with continued warming.

Many coffee producers could be devastated by rising temperatures, and countries like Guatemala, Vietnam, Nicaragua, and Honduras that rely on coffee exports could be hit particularly hard. Growing coffee in Mexico could be a thing of the past by 2020, and coffee growing regions will be largely gone from Nicaragua by 2050. Brazil and Tanzania will likely experience significant losses in the coming decades as well.

But some losses will be offset by gains in other regions, with East African highlands, New Guinea, Indonesia, and the Andes mountain range poised to benefit. For the world's estimated 25 million coffee farmers, many of whom run small farms, moving their operations away from the equator or to higher elevations will be difficult if not impossible. It can take years for new coffee plants to produce, a luxury many farmers don't have or can't plan for. Farmers are already trying to maximize their yields at the expense of future sustainability through crop diversification.

But there's some hope. One study found that rising CO2 levels can greatly increase coffee yield from plants, though it's unclear if that could offset the losses due to climate change. For now, the report suggests buying fair trade coffee that pays fair prices to coffee growers. And, while you're at it, if you're worried about the effect that your morning coffee has on the environment, consider avoiding pod coffee.