Could Climate Change Affect Your Coffee? Fact vs Fiction

Recently on Twitter, a trending hashtag read: “Without Caffeine, I’d” with people responding with GIFs of puppies falling asleep or people walking into doors. The basic premise was that without caffeine, many of us would lose our ability to function semi-normally.

What would you do without your morning brew?

There’s some decent evidence that humans may not have advanced as far as we have, technologically, creatively, even philosophically, without the stimulating, energizing magical potion that is coffee. In the 1500-1700s coffee “had a major impact on the rise of business,” with coffee houses become the center for idea-exchanges and business meetings. “Literature, newspapers and even the works of great composers like Bach and Beethoven were also spawned in coffeehouses.”

Coffee also helped to fuel the industrial revolution, giving works the energy to produce efficiently and continually before mechanization was a thing.

Coffee fueled the Enlightenment, too, taking people from drinking beer and ale all day long to being hopped up on caffeine. It wasn’t only the social gathering space of the coffee house that fostered ideas and collaborations and art, it was the energy. Before the mail system was reliable or newspaper was a common, acceptable part of every day, coffee houses provided an inexpensive center for communication and news, with brains bolstered by caffeine, and ideas exploded.

The world would be quite different, it seems, without beloved coffee. While that seems like an impossibility, a far-reaching hypothetical for fun and games, it may not be as impossible as we’d like to think.

Recent evidence is revealing that coffee could indeed suffer a devastating fate under the impending threat of climate change. According to a study from earlier this summer, the coffee crops in Ethiopia, which is the fifth largest coffee producer in the world, could disappear by up to 20% by the end of this century. Rainfall has been decreasing and temperatures have been increasing in Ethiopia of late, and that is already taking its toll on the country’s coffee crops. On top of that, World Coffee Research estimates that coffee demand will double by 2050; at the same time, it reports, “the suitable land to grow it on will be cut in half.”

More people will be wanting coffee and there will be less of it to fill that demand. This is in large part because cooler climates are better for coffee crops. Those coffee-growing regions with lower temperatures tend to produce higher quality coffees. “Cooler temperatures allow the coffee to ripen more slowly,” according to a representative of World Coffee Research.” “That means more time to develop more complex flavor elements like acidity and sweetness.”

Logically this means that where temperatures are higher, coffee berries ripen more quickly and therefore develop less pleasing and complex flavor profiles, and their quality suffers.

This is the first real change we may see as coffee consumers: a change in flavor or quality. The representative for World Coffee Research believes that there will remain enough equilibrium in the global coffee market that even if regions like Ethiopia see a production decline other regions would take up the slack. This, of course, neglects the considerations of those in regions like Ethiopia who depend on coffee production as their source of income and financial stability. So, while your coffee prices may not increase astronomically anytime soon, an entire region could lose its source of economic sustainability.

According to CNN, “the impact on Ethiopia’s economy could be huge.” Arabica coffee beans, the most commonly consumed coffee type in the world, make up approximately one-fourth of Ethiopia’s export earnings. “Fifteen million people, or 16% of the population, make a living through coffee farming.”

The majority of those farmers have smaller, independent farms, family-owned farms, that are less likely to have the safety net of a larger corporation or the resources to adjust to major climatic changes. “With less ability to adjust, they are more likely to stop growing coffee altogether.”

One way coffee consumers can delay this, beyond environmental considerations which I’ll cover in a moment, is to know where your coffee is coming from and how it is getting to you. Many coffee companies have paid attention to the call from consumers for more transparency and it is now more acceptable for a coffee company to participate in direct or fair trade practices. Direct trade means that some of the middle-men are cut out when it comes to buying raw coffee, with the hope of giving more of the money for the purchase of the raw coffee directly to those producing it. Fairtrade focuses on fair payments and wages for coffee producers as well.

If you have a favorite coffee shop, particularly one that brews Ethiopian coffee, ask them how they source their coffee and see if there’s anything they can do to enhance their support of coffee farmers.

As far as the environment, there is both empirical and anecdotal evidence that climate changes are occurring in Ethiopia and that they are affecting coffee production there already. “Ethiopian coffee farmers have noticed climate changes that have harmed production, including warmer nights, a shorter wet season, irregular precipitation patterns and more extreme weather,” according to CNN. And science is backing them up. There has been a reported increase in warmer days in coffee-growing areas. The regions average yearly temperature has increased by 1.3 degrees in the last 45 years at a rate that could see temperatures increasing by 3.1 degrees by 2016. Since the 1970s annual rainfall in Ethiopia has decreased up to 20% in the south. And over the last decade and a half droughts have become increasingly more common.

There are innumerable groups, activists, non-profits, legislators, and leaders working to counteract and minimize climate change, stop it or reverse it. It takes a short amount of research to learn what you as an individual can do. This is not only so that you can make sure that you’ll still be able to have an extra foamy cap in 30 years at a reasonable price, it is also to ensure that entire regions don’t lose their primary income and economy.

This is one fraction of an example of the effects of climate change and how tremendously interconnected the issue is; it’s a global issue that could have globally devastating effects. The patriots who threw British tea into the Boston Harbor took to the coffeehouse to share ideas and plan and then to truly rebel against tea-drinking and embrace sovereignty. Coffee is patriotism in a way, and as it affects almost every region in the world in some way, it is also humanism.

I don’t know about you, but I get really grumpy when I’m too hot; add to that the possibility that I couldn’t get my hands on a happy cup of energizing coffee—the world as we know it will be a grumpy, sleepy, sweaty mess!


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