Coffee and Climate Change: A Dangerous Pairing

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

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I take the relationship between coffee and climate change very seriously. 

I take the relationship between coffee and climate change very seriously. 

As an agricultural product that relies on healthy and stable soils, ecosystems and climates, coffee is no stranger to the perils of climate change. Neither are the communities of coffee growers and producers that rely on coffee and the land for their livelihood.

This is a huge topic, and I won’t be able to cover it all in one blog post. Still, coffee and climate change is an important subject for everyone who drinks coffee. I encourage you to see this overview as the beginning of your education on the subject, not the end.

Where Does Coffee Grow?

You may have heard the term “coffee belt” being used to refer to areas of the globe that are suitable for growing coffee. But what does that actually mean?

Well, in terms of latitude the coffee belt is roughly between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. I’ll admit, I haven’t thought about those terms since high school.

They aren’t strict boundaries by any means; coffee can grow in subtropical regions, too. But in general, you can consider the coffee species as tropical plants. For now, at least.

Rwandan Coffee Growing Regions

That said, most coffee requires mountainous and high-altitude regions in the coffee belt to thrive. Right now, the ideal elevation for growing coffee is somewhere between 600 and 2200 masl (meters above sea level). However, the range is shifting as global temperatures rise. More on that in a bit.

Coffee species also do better in temperate regions with reliable rainfall and rich soils. Though Arabica coffee trees can tolerate occasional higher temperatures, their optimal range is about the ideal room temperature for humans: 65-73 degrees Fahrenheit (18-23 degrees Celsius).

Anything higher than that can damage the plants, leading to lower yields and more vulnerability to pests and disease. Plus, lower cup quality. All of these impacts have serious consequences for the livelihoods of coffee producers.

It makes sense, then, that Coffee Arabica prefers to grow at higher elevations, where the climate is more temperate despite being in the tropics.

Here’s the bad news: climate change is totally upending this system. Coffee farmers – and their coffee plants – are struggling to keep up with rapid changes in rainfall rates and increased temperatures.

Is Coffee Production Contributing to Climate Change?

While I consider the averse relationship between coffee and climate change, I need to examine it from all angles. What about the impacts of coffee production on climate change?

First, this totally depends on regional differences, including traditional growing practices and water access, and the size of the farm.

For example, a smallholder in rural Colombia, a grower in Ethiopia that maintains a coffee forest and a plantation owner in Brazil are all going to have different impacts on their landscapes. Furthermore, farms in remote regions have higher transportation-related CO2 emissions to get the coffee to market.

Brasilien Kaffeefarm 2022 Kaffeekirschen am Trocknen

I’d also like to remind you that I am not a coffee producer, so I don’t have personal experience with coffee growing practices. That said, I’m going to be intentionally vague here and discuss common problems with large-scale agricultural practices, not just coffee.

Of course, deforestation is a big one. Forests store large amounts of carbon, a greenhouse gas, and release oxygen back into our atmosphere. Deforestation to open up landscapes for farming or cattle is a big contributor to rising global temperatures.

This is most troubling in the case of large monoculture farms that only grow one crop. Monoculture agriculture naturally has a negative impact on plant biodiversity, but it also displaces wildlife by disrupting native habitat. This situation allows pests to thrive, which increases farmers’ reliance on pesticides, often derived from fossil fuels.

What’s more, deforestation and monoculture agriculture disrupt the health of soils, which can lead to erosion and low crop yields. Poor soil health often forces farmers to use fertilizers that can be traced back to fossil fuels or destructive mining practices.

Finally, unregulated water usage to irrigate and wash crops can also be a problem in today’s water-tight environment.

How Is Climate Change Affecting Coffee?

I won’t sugarcoat it: the following paragraphs about coffee and climate change are going to be real bummers. Climate change is affecting coffee production in many ways already, and the consequences only stand to worsen.

As I mentioned, rising global temperatures are changing the suitable growing range of coffee plants. Areas that used to be rich coffee-producing landscapes are no longer suitable, or won’t be soon. In fact, coffee growing regions could drop by up to 50 percent within the next three decades. For coffee growing communities, millions of livelihoods and generations of traditional knowledge and agricultural practices are at risk.

Coffee cherries in Minas region of Brazil

What’s more, labor and shipping costs for producers will likely increase as lower elevations become too warm and climate change forces coffee production into more remote areas.

These temperature changes are also connected to lower quality yields, as higher temperatures make coffee cherries ripen faster. Furthermore, irregular weather patterns and drought have already begun reducing yields for coffee crops. Coffee plants, especially Arabica, exhibit signs of stress when exposed to unfamiliar weather patterns, making them less fruitful and more vulnerable to disease and pests.

Adding insult to injury, these climate conditions are favorable for pests like the coffee berry borer and fungal diseases such as coffee leaf rust. Coffee plantations at higher elevations are mostly protected from leaf rust, since the fungus has a harder time spreading at low temperatures, but that may not last for long.

All this could lead to higher production costs and lower profits for coffee farmers, threatening their financial security and the economic sustainability of the coffee supply chain. Climate change could even force some coffee farmers to abandon the coffee plant and switch to more resilient crops.

How Are Coffee Farmers Reacting to Climate Change?

Coffee farmers, agriculture experts and scientists are developing many management strategies to react to our changing climate.

Growing coffee under conditions that mimic its natural ecosystem is one strategy. This means reforesting coffee plantations and leaning on agroforestry techniques.

Coffee thrives when grown in shade, being that it’s naturally part of the under or midstory of a forest. What’s more, growing in the shade of taller trees helps protect coffee trees from other problems.

Brasilien Kaffeefarm 2022 Ernte Kaffeekirschen

Shade-grown coffee requires less water than plants grown in full sun. Plus, when coffee plants are part of a biodiverse and healthy ecosystem they have better resistance to pests and disease, thanks to beneficial wildlife and plant friends.

On a similar note, some coffee farmers diversify their farms by interplanting other crops and trees. It’s important to mention that this strategy is not new. Rather, it’s a return to agricultural practices that were prevalent before colonial powers forced people to maintain monoculture farms.

Other management strategies include crop and lot rotation to restore soil health. What’s more, water-smart irrigation, infrastructure and processing methods are useful for coffee farms that experience significant drought or reduced water access.

Incidentally, coffee farmers can react to climate change by growing drought- and disease-resistant coffees with higher yields, even if they get lower cup scores. After all, it’s safer in the long run to protect their harvest.

For some, the safest response, when looking at climate change with a 100-year lens, may just be transitioning from coffee farms to new crops with more sustainable futures. Cacao, for instance, grows in similar regions and can better tolerate high temperatures.

I know this is a depressing thought, but remember: farmers are the cornerstone of our food systems, and their livelihood is more important than our ability to drink high-quality coffee.

Is Climate Change-Resistant Coffee Possible?

What a loaded question this is! There are tons of journal articles on this subject alone, and not just in terms of coffee. How many species won’t be able to adapt fast enough to survive climate change? Are adaptation and resistance even possible in the long term?

I’m not a scientist, so I can’t say with certainty. However, I can say that Arabica coffee production in particular is at risk here. Robusta seems to be less vulnerable to climate change, though research on the subject is still ongoing.

Brasilien Kaffeefarm 2022 Bohne in Kaffeekirsche

That said, Arabica production makes up about 70 percent of the world’s coffee plants. So, coffee producers and scientists have been working on finding climate change-resistant varieties and cultivars within the Coffea Arabica species.

Easier said than done, right? Research is a years-long process, since a coffee plant doesn’t reach full maturity and start producing coffee cherries until it’s four or five years old.

What we do know is that some varieties and cultivars are more resistant to rising temperatures, drought, leaf rust and pests – challenges which are associated with climate change. Plus, cultivars can be bred to produce higher yields, which can help offset other climate change-related problems.

For example, the Castillo cultivar, mostly grown in Colombia, shows reliable resistance to leaf rust and produces high yields. That said, the fungus that causes leaf rust is constantly evolving, and many varieties that were resistant to it in the past are no longer so lucky.

How to Help Save Coffee

What can we do to help our beloved coffee industry and the producers that keep it going?

First, we can listen to farmers about their experiences, needs and ideas. Trust that they know what is best for their farms and futures.

Furthermore, we can buy coffee that supports coffee producers and their ecosystems. This doesn’t necessarily mean buying coffee that is certified organic, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and Bird Friendly. After all, those certifications are expensive and often not accessible to smallholders in remote areas.

Brasilien Kaffeefarm 2022 Arne Siebgut

Rather, we can buy coffee with intention. Ask your local roaster about their coffee buying practices. Seek out roasters that prioritize direct trade or have relationships with transparent and community-focused importers and exporters. Buy coffee from roasters that buy stand-out 89 point lots from exceptional producers while also buying blends from the communities that nourish them.

In particular, keep an eye out for roasters that write forward contracts with producers and importers, rather than only buying from Spot lists. Forward contracts enable producers to know that their coffee already has a buyer a year or so in advance, which gives them the financial security to invest in their farms and restorative agricultural initiatives.

When we support smallholders and pay fair prices for their coffee, producers are more likely to have the security to look towards the future of their farms and ecosystems.

We can support these initiatives by doing our own research and buying coffee from indigenous coffee producers and farmer cooperatives that enable smallholders to gain access to the specialty market and negotiate for higher prices. We can educate ourselves and put our money towards shade-grown, sustainably produced coffee.

As far as what not to do, it’s simple. Don’t buy cheap coffee. Cheap commodity coffee is no good for coffee producers or their landscapes.

Coffee and Climate Change: Final Thoughts

Tanzanian Coffee Growing Regions

I’ll admit that this article is quite heavy. But as a coffee drinker – and more importantly, a resident of this Earth – I have to be honest about the future before us.

Maybe this article will make you have some unhappy thoughts while you drink your morning pour over, and that’s okay. After all, awareness is the first step towards action and change.

I’ll leave you with this: remember that the coffee world does not exist in a vacuum. Just as our nations’ political and economic choices influence the future of our climate, they influence the future of the coffee industry.

If you’re feeling moved by this newfound knowledge, I encourage you to channel your energy towards political engagement in your local and national community.

And finally, don’t forget that you can support farmers practicing restorative agriculture in your own community, too. They may not be growing your coffee but they are growing your food.

Coffee and Climate Change FAQ

Rising temperatures and unfamiliar weather patterns are changing suitable coffee-growing regions. Coffee plantations are more vulnerable to drought, pests, disease and low yields, making it harder for farmers to turn a profit.

Coffee production does emit CO2 and some agricultural practices, including monoculture coffee plantations, are not good for the environment.

Climate change will likely reduce the suitable coffee-growing landscapes by 50% by the year 2050.

Yes, coffee production, roasting and brewing emits CO2. That said, sustainable agricultural practices and green energy grids can significantly lower emissions.

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Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

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