SEATTLE — One of the most unique aspects of the global community is the celebration and cultivation of cultural differences, but one common area of enjoyment is coffee. Coffee is one of the most in-demand export crops globally and is the second most traded commodity after oil. Research predicts that the global demand for coffee will double by 2050, but unfortunately, studies also predict that about half of the land used to produce coffee around the world may be completely uninhabitable by 2050 due to climate change.
That daily cup of coffee is in jeopardy due to climate change and this ranks as one of the deepest concerns of coffee farmers around the world. High temperatures and continued drought periods are jeopardizing coffee production, and therefore, the quality of the coffee itself. The results may be that good coffee will be more difficult to grow and even more expensive to purchase.
Surip Mawardi, an agronomist for Starbucks, marked climate change as one of his top concerns. In an interview, he stated that “[coffee]production has decreased due to climate change’s impact on flowering traits as well as more pest and disease attacks.”
Mawardi is just one among an estimated 25 million people that farm coffee around the world. In fact, the coffee industry employs far more people than some might think. In addition to the 25 million that work on coffee farms, there are 100 million more workers who depend on coffee to make a living.
Ultimately this means that when coffee crops become compromised, so do job opportunities for people who live in areas where coffee dominates the work industry.
Coffee and an Unpredictable Climate
The coffee tree is a very delicate plant, so even the slightest unforeseen change in weather patterns or soil conditions can decrease the quality of the coffee bean. Unseasonable or rising temperatures cause droughts and increase the potential for diseases that kill coffee plants and insect pollinators like stem rust.
Plant diseases, brought on by climate change, such as stem rust, are major threats to coffee. Between 2012 and 2013, stem rust cut coffee production in Central America by 15 percent and increased the price of coffee sourced in that area by 33 percent.
Failed Crops and Effects on Workers’ Families
As coffee crops suffer, so do those who depend on it to make a living. Most of these people belong to some of the poorest nations where coffee exports make up a large part of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). While farmers in some regions will be able to adapt, others will be unable to due to rising sea levels, the negative impacts of climate change on soil conditions and a lack of resources to adapt their farming practices.
In Uganda, for example, one out of every five people depend on coffee for income and coffee exports account for nearly one-fifth of the national income. According to the Ugandan government, climate change would cut the country’s coffee production in half by 2050 and cost the country $1.2 billion.
Ugandans are already starting to see the negative effects climate change has on their crops. Fungus and bugs that hollow out coffee berries drastically impact the quality of life Ugandans provide for themselves and their families.
In an interview with NPR, Sam Massa and Robinah Muzaki, two Ugandan coffee farmers, expressed their grief in the face of failing coffee crops. In order to pay for their kids’ school fees, they had to sell the family’s cow, however, they lamented, “…if the yield of coffee had been good, [we]wouldn’t have needed to sell it.”
Already, 30 years before the predicted depletion of coffee crops, many people in poorer countries are beginning to struggle to buy food, pay rent or pay for an education for their kids.
Fighting Back: How the Coffee Industry is Adapting to Climate Change
Over the past couple of years, the coffee crisis caught the attention of corporate leaders such as Howard Shultz, former CEO of Starbucks, Brian Kelley formerly of Keurig and Andrea Illy of Illycaffe. They are making the coffee industry one of the leaders in the fight against climate change.
In 2013, Starbucks bought a 600-acre coffee farm in Alajuela, Costa Rica in order to research the effects climate change has on coffee, and more importantly, how coffee farmers can adapt farming techniques. Across the company’s 20 farmer support centers—which are located in nine different countries—experiments are in the works to develop a coffee bean that can withstand extreme changes in climate and still produce quality coffee that meets Starbuck’s standards.
Keurig is also fighting back by spending $10 million annually to support coffee farmers. They fund a program that teaches farmers new agricultural practices when there is limited water availability.
In Europe, Illycaffe started a program called University of Coffee in 1999, an initiative that focusses on educating coffee farmers about sustainable practices.
In the face of climate change, these companies are not only doing what is best for their own business, but what is best for the fate of coffee itself. By working on the ground level with coffee farmers and production workers, these companies are advocating for workers’ rights to earn a living so they may maintain a sense of agency and have a voice in the coffee industry.
– Morgan Everman