Brewing crisis: How climate change is reshaping coffee production

A good day often begins with a good cup of coffee, a must-have for many worldwide.

Coffee is widely enjoyed all over the world and a major item in global trade. But with climate change’s effects our lives growing to new areas, from mental health to consumption habits, the comforting ritual of sipping java is at risk.

In interviews with Anadolu, scientist Sarada Krishnan and Hanna Neuschwander, strategy and communications director of World Coffee Research, shed light on the grim and profound impact climate change is having on coffee production.

Krishnan, who is director of programs at the Germany-based Global Crop Diversity Trust, emphasized the vulnerability of Arabica coffee, a species highly sensitive to shifting climate patterns that makes up roughly 55% of global coffee in 2022-2023. “Arabica coffee needs very specific growing conditions and is negatively impacted by higher temperatures and drought,” she said.

With temperatures on the rise in coffee-growing regions, impacts have been severe, manifesting in reduced yields, diminished quality, and higher incidence in pests and diseases, Krishnan noted.

Neuschwander, for her part, underscored the gravity of climate change as the single most significant long-term threat to coffee cultivation.

“Recent reports indicate that if demand for coffee continues to rise along historical lines and expected impacts from climate change play out — for example, reduced productivity and reduced area suitable for coffee growing — we will be facing moderate to severe supply shortages of coffee in less than two decades.”

Climate change hurting almost all coffee-growing regions

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the majority of coffee is produced in the Southern Hemisphere, while the consumption takes place primarily in the Northern Hemisphere.

Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia are the world’s foremost coffee producing countries, while EU nations and the US are the top consumers and importers. Growing consumption in emerging economies and stronger interest in specialty coffee and product innovations in developed countries are currently driving the expanding market, according to the UN food agency.

The sweeping effects of climate change spare no coffee-growing region, as Krishnan pointed out. “Almost all coffee-growing regions are impacted by climate change,” she stated.

“Specific climate change impacts will vary country to country. Some places will become hotter, some drier, some cooler, and some wetter. But nearly every coffee production area on Earth is already experiencing new extremes in weather variability that pose major threats to both plants and people,” Neuschwander further said.

Greenhouse gas concentrations are at their highest in 2 million years and rising, causing the planet to warm by about 1.1 C since the 1800s, according to UN figures, with the last decade “the warmest on record.”

Krishnan and Neuschwander elaborated on the specific challenges posed by drought and climbing temperatures on coffee growing, including early ripening, lower-quality harvest, and diminishing flavor complexity.

In the face of these challenges, Krishnan advocates for the conservation of wild coffee species, highlighting their resilience to diverse ecological conditions. “In addition to the two cultivated species of coffee, Arabica coffee — Coffeaarabica — and robusta coffee — Coffea canephora — there are many wild species of coffee.”

She went on to underline the need for the coffee industry to invest in protecting genetic resources and ensuring climate resilience and sustainability of the sector.

Neuschwander also outlined the critical changes needed for coffee to be a sustainable commodity as the climate crisis escalates.

“Farmers need access to financing, to weather insurance, to higher climate-resilient quality plants, and to better prices. The challenges are not coming out of a void — they are the result of many years of underinvestment in the coffee sector.”

Sustainable consumer choices

Krishnan and Neuschwander underscored the role of consumers in shaping a sustainable coffee industry.

Krishnan urged consumers to support roasters and suppliers that have direct relationships with farmers, emphasizing the pivotal role of smallholder farmers in the industry. “Consumers can select roasters and suppliers who work directly with farmers to purchase their coffee and have a direct relationship with farmers.”

“Many smallholder farmers are abandoning coffee growing for other crops. This can lead to a shortage of coffee in the future and so we need to ensure that farmers are supported with tools to adapt to climate change and are earning a living income,” she added.

Neuschwander echoed this sentiment, urging consumers to be willing to pay more for their coffee to ensure farmers can adapt to climate change and earn a living income. “It will sound like a cliche, but being willing to pay more for coffee and not just buying the cheapest you can find is meaningful.”

“If farmers can’t afford to feed their families, how can they afford to think about planting shade trees? If a coffee roaster is able to tell you a little bit about where their coffee comes from, the region or even the name of the farms they buy from, that is a sign that more of the money you pay for the cup will make it back to the farmer — though it is not a guarantee.”

The US Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service estimates that world coffee production will reach 171.4 million bags of 60 kilograms (about 132 pounds) each in 2023-2024. This represents an increase of 6.9 million bags from the previous year, while global consumption is forecast to rise to a record 169.5 million bags.

Ending inventories are expected to continue to tighten to a 12-year low of 26.5 million bags, according to the agency.

India coffee formers stand out as good example

Further, in the midst of the crisis, India has emerged as a beacon of innovation, according to Neuschwander.

“India offers a fascinating example — Indian coffee farms use advanced agroforestry practices with tall-canopy shade and intercrop their coffee trees with high-value spices and other plants,” the coffee expert said.

“Because Indian farmers face a lot of disease pressure, they have also had to adapt and change which types of trees they grow. Coffee from India is less well-known than some other regions, but farmers there are doing incredible things to keep farming viable in the face of the climate crisis,” she explained.

Coffee start-ups flourish amid crisis

Amid the ongoing crisis, a handful of coffee start-ups are grabbing attention, such as Seattle-based Atomo.

Andy Kleitsch, its co-founder and CEO, shared his journey with Anadolu: “Four years ago, I set out to bring my experience in disruptive solutions and passion for sustainability together.”

“I found that traditional coffee is facing tremendous challenges in sustainability and future impact to supply chain due to global warming.”

Atomo has set out to make a cup of coffee from widely available natural, upcycled and superfood ingredients. It produces the world’s first beanless espresso, replicating the same 28 compounds found in traditional coffee from other natural ingredients, said Kleitsch.

“By sourcing our coffee compounds from other more available upcycled and natural ingredients, we are able to avoid the negative impact traditional coffee poses to the planet. Atomo causes zero deforestation, and our ingredients have no impact to natural rainforests.”

Kleitsch expects that as consumers become more aware of the challenges traditional coffee faces through added scarcity and increased prices, they will seek options to help supplement this important ritual.

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