Climate change is putting even your daily coffee ritual at risk.
Higher temperatures dramatically increase the incidence of diseases and pests that impact coffee plants, like lethal coffee leaf rust, to which arabica plantations are particularly vulnerable. The same disease that, in the 19th century, eradicated Ceylon’s then-thriving coffee industry is now taking its toll on Central and South America, where it caused an estimated $3 billion in crop damage between 2012 and 2017.
To outrun the heat and disease, farmers are moving to higher elevations, where the difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures makes a difference to the quality, taste and health of the beans. The downside is less land to farm and higher costs.
Another option involves the hybridization of the ubiquitous arabica bean with the hardy robusta. “Robusta can survive in warmer temperatures and resist pests and disease, but it tastes awful,” says Phil Robertson, cofounder of Phil & Sebastian coffee roasters in Calgary. “Scientists are trying to combine the benefits of robusta and the quality [and taste] of arabica. That’s really promising.”
With a keen eye on the coffee trade, Robertson and his team facilitate knowledge-sharing among farmers, so everyone can benefit from new ideas. “If we see something cool being done in Costa Rica, we can bring those ideas to Honduras,” notes Robertson. “It’s a good strategy to help mitigate problems.” Robertson is optimistic that coffee farmers will find ways to carry on in an ever-warming world. They’re already doing so. “Two years ago, we saw this problem in Guatemala with coffee leaf rust — farmers innovated with new pruning methods,” He says. “Weather, you can’t predict. But we’re seeing coffee farmers adapting to change.” —Lisa Mesbur