Climate Change is not going away, and even denialistas are going to have a hard time ignoring the latest threat: no more coffee. This week New Scientist had an article detailing how shifting weather patterns may be more than Coffea arabica can tolerate. Coffee to go: Is this the end of our favourite drink? spells out the unsettling prospects. (* Free account needed to read article.)
There's a one-two punch that hits coffee particularly hard.
More below the Orange Omnilepticon.
Here's the problem:
As a plant that evolved in the understorey of cool, cloud-capped forests at altitudes between 1000 and 2000 metres, C. arabica is very picky about the conditions in which it will grow. It flourishes best at a fairly constant 18 to 21 °C. As the temperature rises, trees become stressed and yields fall. Exposed to long periods above 30 °C, their leaves fall and tumours appear on the stems. But well before then, at temperatures above 23 °C, the development and ripening of berries accelerates, resulting in poorer quality beans. "Just a couple of degrees extra and beans lose their fruitiness and acidity and the coffee is bland," says Tim Schilling of World Coffee Research, a global network of research institutions funded by the coffee industry. With emissions of greenhouse gases currently tracking the worst-case scenario of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we're on course for a global temperature rise of 4 °C by the 2060s, and between 5 and 6 °C by 2100 (New Scientist, 17 November, p 34).About two thirds of world coffee comes from Coffea arabica; it has very limited genetic diversity, which means developing new varieties from cultivated stock that can cope with climate change is not likely to be easy. There are wild stocks in places like Ethiopia which may have potential for cultivation - but even they appear to be under stress and there are issues of biological property rights to consider as well.
Coffee trees are fussy about water, too. "Coffee is very demanding," says Peter Baker, a coffee specialist at CABI, a not-for-profit organisation that advises farmers in developing countries. "It needs dry weather to build up buds and then rain to trigger flowering. But if it then rains too much, the fruit doesn't set." Once the berries are growing they need showers while they swell and mature. "What they need is increasingly what they are not getting," he says.
While coffee is not a vital food stock, its economic importance is hard to exaggerate. As the New Scientist story by Stephanie Pain notes with some alarm in the opening paragraphs:
COFFEE-LOVERS be warned. Whether you are a three-double-espressos-a-day addict or just indulge in the occasional cappuccino, enjoy it while you can: a coffee drought may be on its way. Changing climate threatens to reduce the flow of coffee that fills 1.6 billion cups a day to a trickle. It may not be long before that after-dinner espresso costs more than the wine and some caffeine addicts will be forced to go cold turkey.emphasis added
If that prospect fills you with dread, you are not alone. There are some 26 million farmers who depend on coffee to feed their families. Coffee is the most valuable tropical export crop, and as the world's favourite drink it is big business. Our seemingly insatiable appetite for macchiatos and lattes has made coffee the second most traded commodity after oil, with exports worth a whopping $15 billion a year. All that is under threat because the coffee industry is built on a plant that is peculiarly vulnerable to our changing climate.
Think of coffee as the canary in a coal mine for agriculture. Its economic importance combined with its sensitivity to disrupted climate patterns should be sending a clear message. We need to take action now; we're already headed for unavoidable warming regardless of what we do. (350.org has the numbers.) Fires in Australia, weather extremes in America, disruption around the globe both now and in the future...
It's one thing to marvel at how much people will pay for exotic coffee; it's quite another to contemplate a future in which not just coffee but basic foodstuffs are in short supply - along with all the other disasters that will be happening at the same time. A New Scientist editorial sums up the message in the coffee cup:
The demise of coffee is, of course, a minor inconvenience compared with some of the projected effects of dangerous climate change. It is not a staple crop; nobody will starve for lack of it, though 26 million farmers who depend on it for their livelihoods face a precarious future.emphasis added
But coffee still has the potential to send a powerful message to the world about the reality of what we are doing to the climate. If you wanted to find a commodity whose escalating scarcity and price would cause maximum discomfort to complacent westerners, coffee is about as good as it gets.
It's past time to wake up and smell the coffee.
It's not like the message is just getting out now - here's a blast from the past from 2009, one more opportunity that went by. The supply is limited...