So Long, Joe? World Coffee Supply Could Be Threatened By Climate Change

The natural habitats of the world's most popular coffee plants are threatened by climate change.

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Climate change has been blamed for killer hurricanes, sea level rise, and drought, but a new report suggests the effects of climate change might hit the world's caffeine supply. Up to 70 percent of the world's coffee supply could be threatened over the next 68 years, according to a new study by researchers at England's Royal Botanic Gardens.

Nearly 100 percent of the world's Arabica coffee growing regions could become unsuitable for the plant by 2080, according to the study, published in PLOS One, an open-access peer-reviewed online journal. Beans from Arabica coffee plants account for about 70 percent of the world's coffee, according to some estimates. But the plant also has to be grown under strict weather conditions: They thrive at temperatures between 64 and 70 degrees, and are highly susceptible to frost or temperatures higher than 73 degrees.

"Arabica coffee is closely tied to narrow environmental parameters, and like the vast majority of coffee species, it has a restricted and specific distribution," the study's authors write. "This species is sensitive to environmental variables, particularly temperature and precipitation … and quickly become stressed in degraded habitats."

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With temperatures estimated to increase by between 1.8 and 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, the fragile plant might become increasingly expensive and difficult to grow, especially in places such as Ethiopia and Kenya. In that worst-case scenario, nearly all of the world's native Arabica coffee would die out. Under more conservative estimates, about 65 percent of the regions used to grow the coffee would become unsuitable for it.

"It has been forecast that the sustainability of the coffee industry faces serious challenges in the coming decades," the study says. "The evidence from coffee farmers, from numerous coffee growing regions around the world, is that they are already suffering from the influences [of] increased warming."

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Some commercial farmers would likely be able to move their operations to other areas or would be able to overcome climate change with artificial cooling techniques, but wild Arabica is generally considered to be much more suitable for making high-quality coffee.

If Arabica becomes impossible to raise in its native areas, it could wreak havoc on the economies of the mainly third-world countries in which it grows. Coffee is the world's most popular drink and is the second most-traded commodity in the world, behind oil.

"Our modeling shows a profoundly negative trend for the future distribution of indigenous Arabica coffee under the influence of accelerated global climate change," the study says. "Production is likely to decrease significantly in certain areas, and especially in locations that are presently marginally suitable for coffee production."

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Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at jkoebler@usnews.com.