Climate Change in the Coffee Industry

Climate Change in the Coffee Industry

In our daily rituals at cozy cafes, coffee serves as a comforting companion, providing that much-needed boost to start the day. However, the future of this beloved beverage is at a crossroads, entangled with the harsh reality of climate change. The coffee industry is facing an existential challenge due to increasing ocean temperatures and unpredictable weather patterns.

Arabica coffee, known for its exquisite flavour, faces a unique challenge in the ever-evolving world of climate change. Recent research from the UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, has shed light on the dilemma of wild Arabica, indicating a troubled trend. Projections suggest that by 2080, the regions where wild Arabica grows in Ethiopia could dwindle by as much as 85%, due to the adverse effects of climate change.

Three adaptation options have emerged to safeguard coffee's future. These strategies encompass relocating coffee to suitable climates and adopting innovative farming practices such as shade-grown cultivation and agroforestry. Amid the challenges, there are also promising beacons of adaptability represented by robust coffee varietals that offer sustainable solutions in this ever-changing landscape.

Hybrid Varietals
Marrying Resilience with Taste
While environmental factors play a pivotal role, genetics also are a crucial part of the equation. Wild Arabica boasts significantly greater genetic diversity. Any challenges observed in these wild populations tend to be magnified when it comes to commercial coffee, where genetic diversity is limited. Historically, the way we cultivated Arabica outside of East Africa has led to a lack of diversity on most farms, rendering them more susceptible to diseases such as leaf rust.

World Coffee Research (WCR) has embarked on an ambitious plan to engineer and improve the Arabica plant through selective breeding; hybrid varietals that marry flavour refinement with climate endurance. Leading varietals like the F1 hybrids are gaining traction for their ability to offer higher yields and resistance to disease, while also delivering high-scoring cups that resonate with consumers and roasters. 

An exemplary hybrid varietal was highlighted in the Cup of Excellence in Nicaragua 2017, where a Centroamericano varietal scored 90.5pts, making it a significant milestone for the F1 hybrids. These hybrids inherit traits from the robust Coffea Canephora (Robusta), making them resilient against pests, disease and warming temperatures, while retaining the intricate flavours associated with Arabica.

Hybrid varieties do however require a higher level of labour to reap the benefits of their positive attributes, such as higher productivity, resistance to leaf rust and better adaptation to extreme weather patterns. It requires more intensive management and each plant's cost is higher than non-hybrid varietals, like the Bourbon and Caturra. Hybrids play a crucial role in safeguarding coffee producers, by ensuring both high quality, resilience, addressing challenges that arise from poor genetic diversity, and climate change.

Arabica Coffee Varietal

Liberica and Excelsa
The Unexpected Comeback 
In the late 1800s, a leaf rust outbreak went through more than 90% of all Arabica plants globally. While most countries switched to Robusta, the Philippines decided to encourage plantations of Liberica, as it's more resistant to leaf rust and can be grown more easily than Arabica in temperate zones with lower altitudes. Furthermore, pests find it difficult to penetrate the cherries, as they are noticeably hardier. The proximity of Southeast Asian countries to Australia allows for more sustainable travel with only a short boat trip from the Southeast Asian nations. While its availability has expanded, it remains concentrated in specific micro-regions across Malaysia, the Philippines and certain parts of Indonesia.

Over 20 years ago, Liberica was mainly used in commodity-grade instant coffee, as Liberica was mixed with Robusta because producers had no buyers for it. Nowadays, coffee producers have discovered that Liberica offers delightful attributes when properly processed, including its sweet, mild acidity characterised by fruity notes of jackfruit; more often than stone fruits or citrus.

Excelsa, considered a part of the Liberica family, sets itself apart from other Liberica coffee. Excelsa has a distinct and unique profile containing a tart, fruitier characteristic. The trees of the Excelsa plant can grow remarkably tall, often exceeding 15 meters with giant leaves, which require regular maintenance and trimming by farmers due to their substantial output. This maintenance increases production costs, contributing to the limited adoption of higher-quality coffee among farmers. Its prolonged ripening period further escalates production costs and hinders the implementation of effective agricultural strategies.

Furthermore, while the market for Excelsa coffee remains relatively limited, partly due to the traditional passing down of information within agricultural societies, there is now an opportunity for growth. Farmers have traditionally reserved this coffee for their own personal consumption, but there is emerging interest in incorporating it into the wider supply chain. While the absence of a well-established commodities market and standardised pricing structures have posed challenges, these barriers are being addressed, paving the way for more extensive production and market accessibility. Anticipate an increase in production in the coming years, driven by a desire for coffee diversity and sustainability, making them both important players in this ever-changing coffee landscape.

Coffea Stenophylla
The Lost Cousin
Enter Coffea Stenophylla, a native of West Africa, and a long-lost species from the same family as Arabica and Robusta, but with its own unique genealogy. A long-term effort from some of the industry's outlying thought leaders, has led to the rediscovery of Coffea Stenophylla. It boasts inherent resistance to pests and diseases, a vital trait in an era marked by climate unpredictability. Stenophylla's ability to endure these challenges makes it an appealing choice for coffee producers seeking resilience. Moreover, Stenophylla showcases the potential to yield abundant coffee crops while preserving the quality of the beans produced, an advantage highly desirable within the specialty coffee sector.

Stenophylla was once a vital part of West African coffee culture. It thrived in the region’s challenging conditions, with the unique ability to withstand pests, diseases, high temperatures and crucially, it's much tastier than Robusta. Its resilience, combined with the quality of the coffee it produced, made it an essential crop for local communities. It was highly prized in parts of East Africa up until the 1960s, when it went nearly extinct because of fears that it wasn’t productive enough.

Green Coffee

The plant was recently re-discovered by Dr Alan Davis, his team from the UK Botanical Gardens and his team in Sierra Leone. A sample of coffee was secured from Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast, and was roasted and blindly cupped by a panel of coffee judges. Over 80% of the judges couldn’t tell the difference between Stenophylla and Arabica in the blind tasting. They also modelled climate data for the plant, suggesting it can potentially tolerate temperatures at least 6°C higher than Arabica. This adaptation could support coffee production in areas where climate conditions might become inhospitable and challenging to other coffee species.

In 2021, seedlings of Coffea Stenophylla were carefully planted as part of an ongoing initiative, aimed at evaluating wild coffee’s potential role in securing the future of high-quality coffee.

Recent Developments
The pursuit of climate-resistant coffee varietals, like Coffea Stenophylla, the resurgence of Liberica and Excelsa, and the development of hybrid varietals, represents a vital response to the challenges posed by climate change. As coffee's existence becomes increasingly threatened, these endeavours are not just about preserving a beloved beverage; they symbolise our commitment to adapt and evolve in the face of a changing world.

In a notable move to address the growing concerns of climate change, Starbucks has recently embarked on an initiative. The coffee giant has begun distributing coffee seeds to hundreds of thousands of Arabica coffee seed farmers, in coffee-growing regions worldwide. They have developed six varietals that are specifically bred to be more resilient to the challenges posed by climate change, including rising temperatures and shifting weather patterns. 

This forward-thinking approach represents a significant commitment to the coffee industry’s future amidst climate uncertainty. By providing climate-resistant varietals to farmers, they are aiming to safeguard the quality and availability of Arabica coffee into the future. Furthermore, this initiative sends a clear message to our broader community that collaborative efforts and innovation are crucial in confronting the threats posed by climate change. This bold move serves as a demonstration to our industry that we can adapt, thrive and ensure our coffee lovers can continue enjoying this special brew that has become integral to our daily lives.