Decent Coffee Will Be Hard to Find by 2050

Studies just keep pouring in about how climate change will make coffee production outrageously challenging in the future—unless it's shitty coffee.

by Mike Pearl; illustrated by Lia Kantrowitz
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Sep 27 2017, 5:44am

This story is part of VICE's ongoing look at how climate change will have changed the world by the year 2050. Read more about the project here.

As I write this, I'm drinking my fourth cup of coffee today. Not because I love blowing $3.00 plus tip every few hours on a bitter infusion of beans and water, but because I'm hopelessly addicted (and yes, OK, I enjoy the ritual). If you're an addict like me, the drink we're all obsessed with offers no measurable advantage in alertness or energy level. We, the cliché, Garfield-like zombies who insist that no one talk to us until we've burned our mouths with hot brown liquid each morning, assign the beverage an idiotic and downright Sisyphean task: Prevent the horrible sickness known as caffeine withdrawal (which includes constipation). Other than that, the Devil Bean's only major effect is that it causes insomnia—which we sometimes want and sometimes don't.

But that's all just as well, because it looks like we're all going to have to make do with a lot less of it by the year 2050—at least the good stuff.

In the words of my friend and former colleague Drew Millard, "Because of its ubiquity, coffee is a thing that people enjoy researching, and then publishing the results of said research." Drew was talking about research into its health effects, but an ever-increasing number of studies about the effects man-made global warming is having on coffee agriculture paint a picture of a future where its prevalence is seriously in question.

If you'd like to generalize (and I sure do, within reason), the basic mechanism that causes coffee plants to be sensitive to climate change involves temperature and corresponding altitude. "Arabica coffee is highly sensitive to temperature changes as it affects plant physiology and as temperature increases in the future, areas suitable for coffee production move upslope," Pablo Imbach, of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture told me over email. "As a result, warmer lowland areas become unsuitable for coffee."

The high ground-loving Arabica strain of coffee makes up 60 percent of what coffee drinkers consume. Meanwhile, low-lying farms that produce Arabica's cousin Robusta coffee are producing a less popular product mostly designed to be turned into that freeze-dried instant stuff. Arabica is in deep trouble, according to a study published in the Nature's Plants journal back in June, and authored by a team including biodiversity researcher Justin Moat of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The study, which focuses on Ethiopia—the cradle of Arabica coffee agriculture—says 60 percent of Ethiopia's coffee agriculture will be impossible by 2100. Botanical scientist Sebsebe Demissew of the University of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and a co-author of the study, lamented to Quartz that Arabica was disappearing, since it was once Ethiopia's "gift to the world."

What happens when there's a bad coffee crop? In the past, shortages have meant higher prices on Arabica coffee. In other words, Economics 101 goes into effect. Widespread shortages in the future would probably mean worse and worse sticker shock on Arabica, and it stands to reason that consumers would compromise on quality. But as Taylor Ricketts of the University of Vermont's Gund Institute for Environment told NPR earlier this month, "There is a whole lot more at stake here than, is my nice espresso in New York going to get more expensive? Climate change is going to threaten this primary livelihood for millions of people in vulnerable communities all over the world."

But it's not just Arabica beans. Coffee in general is under threat. A little more than two years ago, a study came out, primarily authored by Christian Bunn, also of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (who informed me he's not related to the Bunn coffee maker company). That study said half of all the land suitable for coffee production may disappear by 2050. To be clear, all that suitable land doesn't vanish or something. Instead, land where coffee can be grown today just stops being suitable, Imbach explained to me, because of "a combination of effects resulting from increased temperatures (in the future) and changing rainfall patterns."

Puerto Rico makes an illustrative case study in "disappearing" coffee farmland—due to both high temperatures and extreme rainfall. In 1899, Puerto Rico was the world's sixth largest producer of coffee, but Stephen Fain, who co-authored a study earlier this year for the United States Department of Agriculture, said in his report, "High greenhouse gas emission scenarios project temperature increases that, without adaptation, will make growing traditional varieties of Arabica challenging." It's estimated that Puerto Rico had 770 square kilometers of coffee growing land in 1899, but that year Hurricane San Ciriaco reportedly destroyed the entire coffee crop. Usable coffee-growing land has been on the decline ever since. According to Fain's report, those 770 square kilometers from 1899 will plummet to an estimated 24 square kilometers sometime between 2071 and 2099.

The latest International Center for Tropical Agriculture study, published in August in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, comes from a team of researchers including Imbach, and it paints another dire picture: Changes to the climate are causing the acreage in which coffee can grow in Latin America to be reduced by 73 to 88 percent by 2050, depending on which warming model is being applied. (As you may be aware from reading climate change stories, climate models attempt to factor in the rate at which humanity will curb its greenhouse gas emissions, and that rate remains a very open question.)

To make the matter scarier for coffee addicts, the effect isn't limited to Latin America—that's just the area that was being studied in this instance. "Global studies indicate similar trends with the largest suitability losses for Brazil and Southeast Asia and varied patterns across these regions following a trend towards suitable areas moving uphill," Imbach told me.

But according to Imbach, this damage could be mitigated if we pay attention to, um, bees. There's a complicated relationship between climate change, coffee, and bees. Different bee species are harmed by climate change at different rates, and meanwhile, their pollinating activity has differing impacts on coffee crop yields. Imbach's report explores this complexity in depth. "Assessing coupled effects of climate change on crop suitability and pollination can help target appropriate management practices, including forest conservation, shade adjustment, crop rotation, or status quo, in different regions," the report says.

"Our study shows different types of coupled changes in bees and coffee," he told me. Consequently, he advises farmers to pay attention to these couple changes. More generally, he says they should consider scaling down their pesticide use and cultivating bee-friendly plants near coffee crops. He added that "bees could still provide services to farmers under climate change."

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.

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