A year ago, at an experimental coffee farm that Starbucks owns on the slopes of a volcano in Costa Rica, workers carefully plucked coffee cherries—the bright red fruits that contain coffee beans—off three dozen new varieties of coffee trees that had been planted two years earlier and were being harvested for the first time. At a test plot in another Costa Rican farm, workers did the same thing, weighing the fruit picked from each new coffee hybrid and recording the data before sending the beans off to be processed, roasted, and shipped as samples to 20 different coffee companies, from Intelligentsia to Dunkin’, for “cupping,” or taste tests.
At both farms, and at other global sites, the pilot is being run by World Coffee Research, a nonprofit backed by some of the world’s largest coffee companies. The organization is testing the new varieties for productivity, disease-resistance, and flavor, as an early step to tackling the industry’s biggest problem: How can coffee survive the impacts of climate change?
The smallholder farmers who grow the beans used to make your morning cup of coffee are already beginning to struggle because of extreme weather and increasing crop diseases. “I don’t know of any coffee farmers who don’t believe in global warming,” says Doug Welsh, vice president of coffee and head roastmaster at Peet’s, the San Francisco Bay Area-based coffee roaster and retailer. The company helped launch World Coffee Research in 2012 as a way for coffee companies to collaborate on solutions. “We’re talking about a challenge that’s bigger than any company,” Welsh says. “It’s really bigger than any country.”
The coffee belt is roasting
By 2050, according to a 2019 projection from Columbia University’s Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment, as much as three-quarters of the land currently used to grow Arabica coffee—the coffee species most relied on by coffee roasters—will no longer be suitable for the crop if climate change continues on its current path and the average temperature in coffee-growing areas goes up 2.8 degrees Celsius (roughly 37 degrees Fahrenheit); it has already risen 1.5°C in those regions.
“Coffee is particularly susceptible to climate change for a lot of reasons,” says Elizabeth Shapiro, an environmental policy and management professor at Duke University who has studied how coffee producers are trying to adapt to global warming. “But one of them is that it really has a very limited climatic range in which it will grow.” Robusta is a little more resilient than Arabica coffee, but it can’t be a full replacement because it lacks flavor, which is why its mostly used in blends. And even it is getting harder to grow as the climate changes.
The belt of land where coffee thrives stretches around the globe in the tropics, from Ethiopia to Indonesia to Bolivia. Even within that limited area, coffee trees, small, shrub-like plants that grow small red fruits each containing two seeds (the “beans”), do well only at certain altitudes with the right temperatures.
Arabica thrives at temperatures between 64° and 70°F, on mountainside farms ranging from 1,800 to 6,300 feet above sea level. (The total acreage is hard to estimate, but may be more than 26 million acres globally.) The majority of the crop is grown by an estimated 25 million smallholder farmers, many of whom rely on small coffee orchards behind their homes to make a living. Most live in poverty, despite the fact that they are supplying a global coffee market worth more than $100 billion.
Workers typically harvest the cherries by hand, a labor-intensive process that involves selectively picking each fruit at peak ripeness. Then the crop is dried, processed, and the beans are shipped off to coffee roasters.
As climate change makes mountainous farms hotter, coffee trees are producing fewer of the fruits that contain coffee beans, and the quality is declining. At lower temperatures, coffee beans ripen more slowly, which causes complex acids and sugars to develop in the fruit.
“Coffee, like wine, gets some of the complexity of its flavor from slower maturation,” says Hanna Neuschwander, director of strategy and communications at World Coffee Research. “That’s probably one of the first things [that climate change] will impact. You can start impacting both flavors and production qualities. Eventually, once it gets super hot enough, you might get to a situation where the plant just can’t even survive anymore.”
Coffee producers will be hardest hit. You might not notice much of a difference to start: Because production can move to new locations, consumers might not notice major changes, at least at first. Eventually, some specialty coffees could begin to disappear, coffee prices could creep up, and the quality of an average cup of coffee could begin to decline. All of the pressures on coffee are increasing at the same time as demand grows, particularly in the developing world. By 2050, as the land suitable for growing coffee shrinks, global demand is projected to double. Without doing more, the quality of what’s available will change.
“It’s not like we’re not going have any coffee in 2050,” says Neuschwander. “Someone will produce it. But what will it taste like, and how expensive will it be? What’s the ability to retain those more interesting, flavorful, nuanced coffees? I’m not even talking about the $30-a-pound single-origin stuff. I’m talking about the stuff that gets layered into Folgers to make it taste more interesting than just cardboard.”
20 million farmers at risk
Farmers are already seeing other impacts as weather events become more extreme and erratic. “Farmers that we worked with in Guatemala are seeing a really much more prolonged dry season than they had before,” says Shapiro, the Duke University professor. “And when the rains come, it’s much more unpredictable.”
Increasing heat, heavy storms, and humidity are making a fungus called coffee leaf rust spread more easily because the conditions are ideal for the fungus to reproduce. The disease attacks leaves and makes coffee trees produce fewer fruits. It can devastate small farms, some of which have seen production drop as much as 80%. Other farmers have already given up in the face of climate challenges and swings in the price of coffee that have meant they can’t always cover the cost of production, including the chemicals used to fight the fungus. When waves of migrants fled Central America in 2019, many were former coffee farmers.
As climate change moves the prime growing areas for coffee higher up in the mountains, some farmers may also eventually relocate—that is, if they can afford to buy new land and wait years for new trees to begin bearing fruit. Farms will shrink even more because of the geography of mountains. “By definition, there’s less land,” says Welsh of Peet’s. “The higher you get on the peak of a mountain, the less land there is. So there’s only one conclusion, and that is that coffee plants themselves have to become tremendously productive.”
Supply will likely grow in some countries while it shrinks in others. Both Vietnam and Brazil have pushed to increase larger-scale, industrial production. In Vietnam, producers are focused on Robusta coffee, the less-flavorful variety. Brazil is growing Arabica, and competing with smaller farmers who produce higher-quality beans by undercutting them on price. Both countries have room to expand production—although in some areas, that may mean cutting into the rainforest, further speeding up the process of climate change.
Relatively little is being done to plan for moving coffee production, though Costa Rica, for example, is beginning to map key coffee-growing areas and potential climate impacts. The coffee industry doesn’t seem to be actively planning yet how production can shift to new locations.
“Our focus is on the land that exists,” says Michelle Burns, senior vice president of coffee and tea at Starbucks. “Twenty million farmers and their families are impacted in coffee-growing regions around the world. And our ambitions are that we’re strengthening the land in which they’re farming, we’re increasing their yield and productivity.” Burns notes that the company is working to prevent deforestation. But it isn’t clear that supply can be met without relocation.
“I wish we’d gotten started earlier than 2012.”
At World Coffee Research’s own farm in El Salvador, the nonprofit has developed new varieties of coffee and is testing those trees for resilience, better yield, and flavor at host sites including Starbucks’s farm. It’s challenging in part because there’s little diversity among existing commercial varieties.
“We have a couple of dozen commercial varieties, and even those varieties are not very distant, which means that when local conditions change, plants can’t adapt, or they don’t have the genetic breadth to be adaptive,” Welsh says. Cross-breeding plants is a slow process, made slower by the speed that coffee trees grow compared to other plants. “To develop new lines is a 10- or 20-year process,” he says. “So it’s important that we got started when we did. I wish we’d gotten started earlier than 2012.” Over the past year, 35 different varieties of experimental hybrids developed by the nonprofit started to produce their first fruits.
One of the first steps is to evaluate the flavor of the new beans. “They have to be hyper-productive for farmers to be profitable,” Welsh says. “But they also have to taste good. There have been a few examples in the past where breeding programs have been designed only for yield, for disease-resistance, but not for the marketplace. And those are really disappointments for farmers because they invest for four years to get a crop. And then they sell the coffee and find out there aren’t any buyers.”
Even if some of the new varieties are deemed a success, there will still be challenges. One of the reasons that the new varieties are more productive is something called “hybrid vigor,” or the fact that two plants that are genetically more distant will make extra-vigorous offspring. But to keep that going, the plants have to be reproduced by tissue cloning—the same technique used to make commercial flowers, or cannabis—rather than by seeds that coffee farmers would normally collect to replant.
Farmers may understandably be resistant to the idea that they have to keep buying new plants rather than using free seeds. “In a situation where farmers have maybe been sold a bill of goods before, and you come in and you say, ‘Oh, you can’t plant the seed of this plant,’ if you don’t have trust with that farmer, they’re going to be like, what is this, some Monsanto bullshit?” WCR’s Neuschwander says. (In Guatemala, for example, there was public outcry over a law that protected Monsanto’s intellectual property rights for seeds for other types of crops, threatening fines for farmers that reused patented seeds. While new coffee seeds are not patented, they just won’t work as well if they’re replanted. Luckily, coffee trees are relatively long-lived, and don’t need to be replanted often.)
At its test farm, Starbucks is studying growing techniques that farmers can use to improve productivity, with the aim to share that knowledge with as many growers as possible. The company is also donating millions of trees to farmers. “We work hand in hand with farmers in an open-source agronomy environment on the ground, which is really key, because whether we’re buying the coffees or not, we are committed to ensuring that we’re all working together toward the big bold ambition,” says Burns of Starbucks.
Other research groups are also studying how much particular techniques can help, such as growing coffee under larger shade trees to help the crop deal with heat and drought. Farmers are also experimenting with solutions such as collecting rainwater to use for irrigation during droughts.
Industry and governments need to step up
Still, there are limits to what can be done either with changes to agricultural practices or genetics. “Breeding crops that will help with climate adaptation is incredibly important,” says Kaitlin Cordes, one of the authors of a 2019 report on coffee production from the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment. “But we won’t be able to breed our way out of all the climate change impacts that will arise. In a lot of places where coffee currently is grown, at some point, it seems pretty clear that coffee production will no longer be viable in those places.”
Breeding coffee is also far behind what’s happening in other realms of agriculture. Neuschwander points out that although new hybrids are more resilient, they haven’t yet been bred for specific traits like heat-resistance. “Coffee is 40 years behind other crops,” she says. “It’s behind because it’s an orphan crop: It’s grown in poorer countries and consumed in richer ones. . . .
“The research infrastructure in coffee-producing countries is not anywhere close to what is in consuming countries,” she adds, “but that is where the research gets done, by and large.” New gene-editing techniques like CRISPR might help speed up progress, but the industry hasn’t embraced them, recognizing that customers are wary of anything that sounds genetically modified.
The Columbia report suggests that the coffee industry, and governments in the world’s coffee belt, will have to do far more, including expanding climate services that give farmers information on new varieties and how to manage crops. Some governments are testing new services now, such as a free app in Costa Rica that gives farmers weather and pest updates and tips on how to use fertilizer. Irrigation can be added in some areas, though it will be a challenge as water supplies become less reliable. Farmers may need assistance with relocation. Programs like the one Starbucks runs, providing loans to farmers to expand infrastructure, could also expand.
Insurance for small farmers or long-term purchasing contracts can also help. “I think insurance is incredibly important, and finding ways to structure business relationships with farmers so that more of the climate risks are shared more,” Cordes says. Right now, smallholder farmers get only a tiny fraction of the price that a consumer pays for a cup of coffee but bear the biggest risk if their crop fails. And, of course, coffee companies need to address their own carbon footprints; Starbucks, for example, aims to cut its emissions in half by 2030 as part of a longer-term goal to become “resource positive,” eventually storing more carbon than it emits.
“If coffee farmers are going to weather both the economic and climate challenges of the next 20 years, they’re going to need to get support,” says James Rising, one of the coauthors of the Columbia report and an assistant professor at the London School of Economics, noting that the industry isn’t yet providing resources at the scale that is necessary. “And the reason why roasters like Starbucks should want to offer that support is that those farmers have an awful lot of knowledge about how to maintain good coffee. It’s also not just about climate conditions. It’s about how you manage the trees, how you manage the land. It’s really important to not lose that knowledge.”
Without support, more coffee farmers may switch to other crops. “If we aren’t able to increase the ability of farmers to adapt to climate change in order to remain competitive, to be able to keep producing coffee, and producing it at enough of a profit that they can afford to remain coffee farmers, then I think those are the coffees that I’m worried won’t be around,” Cordes says. “We’ll still be able to caffeinate ourselves. But I’m not sure how pleasurable the experience will be. And certainly, there will have been many millions of livelihoods impacted.”