Climate Solutions for the Future of Coffee

The world’s coffee production is facing a crisis, with the global production of 3 percent less than consumed in 2023. This is due to growing consumer demand in Asia and climate change, which affects supply. Coffee is susceptible to heat and drought, which can harm plants and encourage coffee rust, a devastating fungal disease. Climate models show that climate change and arabica are incompatible, especially where coffee is currently grown.

Climate change also causes labor problems and hurts farm owners, as lower yields mean less cash flow, contributing to wage stagnation. Underpaid pickers don’t show up, and coffee cherries rot on the ground, wasting the harvest. Heat can cause coffee to ripen before pickers are available, causing cherries to fall and be wasted. Some harvests last for six months instead of the standard two, while others are shockingly short.

Climate also intersects with infrastructure, as heavy rains wash out roads, and farmers can’t get their product to market or harvests are compressed into a two-week period. With increasingly tight margins, farm owners cannot afford upgrades needed to make their coffee production more water-efficient and buy new cultivars that resist coffee rust and heat.

A shift in coffee growing regions is expected, with green areas projected to be favorable to coffee cultivation by 2050, while brown areas will not. About 50% of current coffee-growing land will likely be unsuitable for arabica by 2050, with Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, and Indonesia being on that list.

Coffee plants usually take three to four years to produce their first yield, but rising global demand may provide incentives. Coffee roasters and retailers strategically adjust their sourcing to regional conditions, with Philz Coffee planning 10 to 15 years ahead in sourcing and strongly invested in Brazil.

The growing global demand for coffee has led to a shift towards agroforestry, which involves growing coffee in the shade. This approach reduces ambient temperature, enriches soil, and controls evaporation to prevent plants from drying out. However, shade-grown coffee has its own problems, such as increasing the incidence and severity of coffee rust by 22%. Harvesting shade-grown coffee can be costly and difficult, as workers must contend with roots, branches, machetes, ants, and snakes while reaching for coffee cherries.

Conventional farmers have also cleared-cut hills, a practice that robs the coffee of shade and the land of biodiversity. One study found that arabica’s move into forested areas could result in the loss of 35% of threatened vertebrate species due to clear-cutting. Policy changes, such as the EU’s prohibition of coffee imports from countries with new deforestation, could offer new hope for agroforestry. Some national governments have set policies to encourage shade-grown coffee, including Mexico, which has nearly 1.5 million acres of shade-grown coffee, much of it bordering protected natural areas.

Coffee worldwide is increasingly grown alongside other crops, such as avocados, plantains, cacao, sugarcane, nuts, citrus, and spices. Intercropping offers shade for coffee plants and financial stability for farmers. For example, some Mexican producers grow coffee under banana trees, which can generate up to 30% of their total income. In places that are increasingly too hot or dry to grow coffee, such crops may someday support former coffee producers but for now, they supplement coffee revenues.

Daniele Giovannucci, a former coffee consultant for the World Bank and founder of the Committee on Sustainability Assessment, sees coffee’s climate adaptation as splitting into two paths: specialty coffees like shade-grown gourmet varieties and varietals suited to new climate conditions. Robusta, popular in Europe for espresso and more heat-resistant than arabica, is one possibility. A 2022 study predicted that about 83% of the world’s future coffee-growing areas would support robusta, but only 17% would support arabica. Robusta thrives at 72-86 degrees Fahrenheit and requires more rainfall, at least 69 inches annually.

Robusta has vastly greater genetic diversity than arabica; most of its thousands of varieties have yet to be explored. Big Coffee has yet to fully embrace robusta, as it didn’t get its own quality standards until 2010. Robusta was judged by the same standards as arabica, which is rated on its “bright notes” and is rewarded for acidity. Robusta is less acidic; a fine robusta is balanced between sweet and salty, for example.

Despite the potential climate advantages, Robusta has not been fully embraced by Big Coffee. Robusta did not get its own quality standards until 2010, and most of its thousands of varieties have yet to be explored. The best robustas Pohl has tasted are from Africa, as they have more to work with and tend to be better, whether or not they’re known to the world.

Hybrid coffee plants, such as Centroamericano, have been introduced in 2010 as a potential climate solution for farms that can afford them. These plants are high-yielding and rust-resistant, and thrive in the shade at high altitudes. However, only a handful of hybrids have become commercially available to farmers in the last 15 years, and only in select countries. World Coffee Research has operated a non-GMO breeding program to develop more climate-resistant coffee varieties for the past two years.

Philz Coffee would be open to robustas or hybrids if the right flavor profiles came along. They support World Coffee Research and believe in using science to create quality hybrids and breeds they can work with. In 2012, coffee rust hit Mexico and Central America hard, depressing yields through 2015. Mexico’s agriculture department distributed rust-resistant cultivars such as Oro Azteca, Marsellesa, and Costa Rica 95, along with technical assistance on Fair Trade and organic certification. The project also encouraged shade-planting.

In San Francisco, Minus Coffee uses an upcycled approach similar to Atomo’s but with different ingredients, like chicory, millet, and carob. Founder Maricel Saenz, who grew up in Costa Rica, says Minus distributes canned cold brews to large food-service companies. The company donates 1% of its profits to a group called Doselva, which equips coffee farmers for intercropping. Both companies add caffeine, which is extracted from tea.

Large coffee companies are concerned about the looming crisis and are looking to address supply chain problems and quality issues. Atomo Coffee, whose factory starts production in spring 2024, plans to introduce its product as a sideline in existing coffee shops. Minus Coffee also uses an upcycled approach similar to Atomo’s but with different ingredients, like chicory, millet, and carob.

Both companies add caffeine, which is extracted from tea. Atomo and Minus Coffee fare well in blind taste tests, and their backers think there is a market. Beanless coffee can also come from coffee plants. A research team in Finland released a proof-of-concept study on lab-cultured coffee in late 2023 in hopes that food scientists would find it useful. They used a bioreactor to grow coffee from plant cells, like brewing beer, but without the fermentation. The closed system gives growers control over water purity and nutrients.

Cultured coffee grows fast, in about 10 days, and inexpensively in the lab, and it’s real coffee. It doesn’t look like a coffee bean but is easy to harvest because it’s essentially pre-ground. When the floating mat of coffee cells is drained and dried, it yields a fine powder, ready to roast. Roasting powdered coffee requires a different approach than roasting whole beans, a challenge for this emerging product.

The flavor profile of lab-cultured coffee needs some tweaking, and its primary flavor is a smoky burned-sugar aroma with “appropriate bitterness.” Cultured coffee’s flavor can be refined with experimentation, such as changing the media in which cells are grown. David Pohl thinks it’s too soon to take coffee production into the lab, but for now, millions of coffee farmers around the world are looking for viable ways to produce coffee.

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