We’ve all heard the claims - that by 2050, coffee as we know it is set to drastically change or worse, disappear! But are the rumours true? We summarise three leading reports to determine once and for all what the future of our favourite beverage looks like.
But first, a little background on coffee.
While 124 coffee species grow worldwide, there are just two that make up 99% of what we consume. The most popular is arabica, which comprises about 60-70% of coffee produced worldwide. It’s the best quality coffee available and the variety we source from Timor-Leste and sell in Melbourne. The other is robusta, which is more commonly found in instant coffee mixes and makes up roughly 30-40% of production.
Unfortunately arabica coffee is as delicate as it is delicious. Unlike robusta, it requires specific conditions to grow which are primarily found on high-altitude farms in equatorial countries; namely a cool and consistent temperature (ideally 17-21°C) and plenty of shade. This finicky temperament makes the world’s favourite coffee particularly sensitive to the effects of climate change.
So how will climate change impact coffee?
A recent study published on PLOS One predicts an overall decline in the world’s suitable growing land for arabica coffee by 2050. Even under a moderate climate change scenario with 1.6°C of warming - frighteningly close to the 1.5°C the IPCC forecasts we will reach between 2030 and 2052 on the current trajectory - the world is set to lose half of its best coffee growing land within 30 years. While some regions outside the tropics (including parts of China, Uruguay and even the USA) might even benefit from opportunities for new farms in previously unsuitable areas, it will not compensate for the losses. For the ‘bean belt’ countries like Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia and our beloved Timor-Leste, the changing climate will be disastrous, especially at a local level.
An earlier report by the Climate Institute found that coffee production could be cut in half by 2050 due to climate change. Warming temperatures have started to introduce several new threats to the production of coffee, ranging from unsuitable growing temperatures to new warmer weather pests. Perhaps the worst is leaf rust, the deadly coffee tree fungus responsible for decimating the once thriving coffee industry in Sri Lanka over two decades. Another is the berry borer beetle which chases warmer temperatures up hillsides and into coffee plantations where it wreaks havoc. Both pests reproduce and spread quicker in hotter climates.
Then we have extreme weather and natural disasters, like the droughts in Brazil, which led to market prices doubling, and the floods in Timor-Leste, both in 2021. These weather events will continue to get worse, destroying coffee farmland and altering soil conditions beyond repair unless we reverse deforestation, reduce emissions and expand on conservation plans. If, by some miracle, the plants manage to survive these threats, warmer growing conditions will lead to a lesser quality, different tasting coffee and lower yields which means higher prices (hello, iceberg lettuce!).
But what about other coffee species?
While the outlook is less than ideal for arabica, could other, more resilient, wild coffee varieties swoop in and save the day? Unfortunately, the majority of these wild varieties are missing the two best things about coffee - caffeine and a delicious taste. That’s not to say they are useless though; many wild species contain genetic qualities that our favourite arabica lacks, such as higher tolerance to heat and drought.
Hibrido de Timor (or Timor Hybrid) is a wild growing cross between arabica and robusta that was first discovered in 1917 in Timor-Leste. The species inherited robusta’s resilience to disease (particularly leaf rust) while keeping a quality closer to that of arabica. It is now widely cultivated around the world for its resistance to leaf rust, and provides hope for smallholder Timorese coffee farmers and their livelihoods.
However, the future does not look as bright for all wild coffee. A paper published in Science Advances found that of the 124 wild coffee species worldwide, 60% of them are in danger of dying out due to climate change, including the endangered wild relative of arabica. Many of these species contain genes that grow in wild weather or protect against disease and pests so losing coffee species diversity means it will be harder to create hardy hybrids.
What does this mean for humans?
If climate change continues to impact production, Aussies can expect to see a higher priced cuppa that is more difficult to source. Again, think of the current iceberg lettuce situation. If growing conditions worsen, you can also expect a subpar taste and lower quality of drink.
While a reduced coffee supply will be difficult for consumers, it will be absolutely disastrous for the 25 million farmers around the world whose livelihoods depend on it. These are some of the poorest and most marginalised communities in the world, who don’t have the resources (nor enough time!) to stay and fight or pack up their farms and move to cooler climates.
Then there’s the millions of people across the globe employed in transport, packaging, distributing, selling and brewing the coffee we all love who will likely be out of a job.
So what is being done?
While governments move slowly to implement strategies to mitigate climate change, businesses and individuals have been forced to take matters into their own hands. Scientists and farmers have begun experimenting with crossbreeding to create more durable beans - hence the importance of wild coffee species! Tests have begun on a new climate resistant coffee which has higher yields, is resistant to leaf rust and can be grown at various altitudes. Other lab trials are underway to evaluate how new species perform in different global environments. One company, Compound Foods, has even developed a ‘beanless coffee’ in their lab that mimics the flavour, colour and smell of real coffee without the energy and water required to grow, transport and brew a cup. While a hopeful outlook for consumers, none of these solutions help established coffee farms and the people who depend on them for income.
Something we work with our Timorese farming partners on is crop diversification. By creating new markets to sell existing crops such as vanilla, peppercorns or turmeric (like here in our Australian shop), farmers are protected from fluctuating coffee prices and unpredictable yields, allowing them to better support themselves and their families. Another solution is the practice of agroforestry, where shade trees are planted alongside coffee trees to reduce sun exposure and improve soil conditions.
But all the research points to one thing: the best way to ensure farmer’s livelihoods and the future of coffee as we know it is to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally.
What can you do?
Now that you’re aware of the projected outlook, the best thing you can do as an individual is to ask your coffee supplier whether they’re paying attention to the issue, helping farmers adapt, and implementing solutions to mitigate climate change. For us this looks like collaborating on strategies with farmers, offsetting carbon and contributing to reforestation. You can find out more about that here.
Make no mistake - climate change is not merely an environmental problem; it’s a social justice issue. When coffee plants die off and farms become unproductive, smallholder farming families will be the first to suffer, feeding the cycle of poverty and inequality. So look for products that pay farmers fairly and directly; Fairtrade rates are the bare minimum!
Ultimately it’s up to governments and companies to take more action. But it’s incumbent on each of us to be the change we want to see in the world. We hold so much power in how we spend our dollars, so vote with your wallet for a future that puts people and planet front and centre.