Climate change threatens to make your morning brew more expensive

A warmer planet is forcing coffee farmers to move uphill and cultivate different crops


Coffee farmer Masumi Kondo wrapped himself in a cosy blanket on cool nights in the 1970s when he began growing the crop in the Franca region of Brazil’s Sao Paulo state. Now, thanks to persistently warmer weather, he needs an air conditioner.

It’s not just the sleeping habits of farmers responding to a change in the climate. Rising temperatures are reducing the range of wild arabica plants, the most popular bean for drinkers. From Brazil to Ethiopia and Kenya, growers are moving uphill and deploying new technologies to maintain yields.

Within the next seven decades, the places arabica can grow naturally is likely to fall by at least 50%, scientists at Britain’s Royal Botanical Gardens said in a report. Today’s abundance of beans, which has kept a lid on prices in the world’s coffee shops, could reverse as the shift in the climate reduces the potential size of the crop in the years ahead.

“Lower prices like you’re seeing at the moment is more of a risk than climate change for the next three years,” said Geordie Wilkes, head of research at Sucden Financial Ltd. “Producers in central America are making a loss. In the longer term, 10 years onwards, it’s climate change which is more important for the market.”

Arabica beans — favoured by Starbucks Corp for its coffee drinks — are the most common source of coffee worldwide, thriving in cool regions with distinct rainy and dry seasons. They need year-round temperatures of 15 to 24 oC (59 to 75 oF), according to the Coffee Research Institute. Too cold and they suffer from frost. Too warm and the quality of the coffee declines. The taste of the beans depends on crisp nights.

Yet, farmers are noticing the plant’s range is shifting because of rising temperatures. Kondo, the farmer in Cristais Paulista north of Sao Paulo, said it’s been too warm from September through November when arabica plants flower. The result: Flowers fall off more frequently, cutting the yield per tree.

“Productivity of the coffee plants has dropped a lot,” said Kondo, whose family has 120ha of arabica trees. “Besides the heat, it does not rain anymore as before. A few years ago, we gave up of buying a new area to expand, as we evaluated that the climate risk of planting coffee here is higher.”

The biggest risk is to the wild version of arabica plants, which contain the genetic storehouse necessary to produce new flavours and more robust plants. The scientists at Kew said the natural range of those plants is narrowing for three reasons — climate change, fungus and deforestation. Their concern is that more than half of all wild coffee species may be extinct by 2088.

Wild arabica, which when grown commercially is the most widely traded coffee in the world, has been placed on an endangered list by the scientists.

In the decades ahead, growers may need to shift to the more flexible robusta bean, which can grow in hotter places but also has a stronger flavour. With wild species disappearing, growers have fewer genetic options to adapt the arabica plants to different growing circumstances.

“If you look at the last 200 years of coffee production, there is a coffee sector because the industry has been able to go back to the wild genetic resources to look for specific traits that are resistant to disease, and able to cope with warmer air temperatures,” said Aaron Davis, head of coffee research at Kew and lead author of one of the reports. “The coffee crop species portfolio will need to be diversified for the future in the face of new and worsening challenges.”

Arabica has particular importance to Ethiopia, Africa’s largest coffee producer. About 80% of Ethiopia’s coffee-growing land occupies forest-like habitat covering around 19,000 sq km — almost the size of New Jersey — according to a 2017 report from the Kew scientists.

Farmers there have reported that climate change has hampered growing because the dry season is extending, and the mean annual temperature has increased by 1.3oC from 1960 to 2006.

As a result, Ethiopia could lose up to 60% of the land that’s suitable for growing coffee by the end of this century, the scientists concluded. That would be a big blow for a country that is estimated to produce some 7.5 million bags of coffee in the current season, which is about 4.4% of global supply, according to the International Coffee Organisation (ICO).

Despite warmer weather in coffee-growing areas, output of the crop for the 2018-2019 season is estimated at 167.5 million bags, up 1.5% from the previous year, the ICO said this month. It’s the second year of a surplus that has dampened prices.

Arabica futures have tumbled in recent weeks as rains in Brazil and Vietnam signalled ample global supplies. The benchmark arabica contract dropped 19% in 2018 while robusta — used in instant coffee — fell 11%. It’s the short-term weather effects on global supply that concerns traders as oppose to the long-term effects of a shifting climate.

Farmers are taking the climate threat seriously. In Brazil, which is the world’s largest coffee exporter, growers are looking for alternatives, such as planting more trees in the same area in order to maintain profitable yield levels.

Minas Gerais and Sao Paulo, which grow more than 80% of the nation’s arabica, have in the past attracted coffee farmers because of their lower risk of freezing temperatures. It’s extreme heat in recent years that’s a bigger threat now, said Eduardo Assad, a researcher at Embrapa, a government-run agricultural research organisation.

The maximum temperature has risen about 3oC in the last 20 years, he said. Two consecutive days of temperatures above 34oC during the flowering period are enough to trigger the death of coffee flowers, Assad said.

“Farmers are looking for irrigation while researchers seek coffee varieties more resistant to high temperatures,” said Assad.

Moving coffee farms to higher, cooler ground might preserve some of the large-scale farming in the area, according to the Kew scientists. They found that in Ethiopia the overall altitude of growing coffee in the country could move up by 32m a decade, shifting the upper limits of farms 2,200m to as high as 3,300m. “As long as farmers have the ability to invest in new technologies, it might be possible to mitigate to some extent,” said Casper Burgering, senior sector economist at ABN Amro Bank NV. “It’s not possible to mitigate it completely. It will have an effect on supply of coffee going forward.” — Bloomberg