Buzzkill? How Climate Change Could Eventually End Coffee

Coffee farmers all over the world are dealing with new threats to their crops.

By + More

Millions around the world wake up and brew a cup of coffee before they start their day. But for many involved in the industry, a caffeine buzz isn't keeping them up at night—instead, what's causing insomnia is the increasing difficulty that climate change causes coffee farmers.

[ALSO: So Long, Joe? World Coffee Supply Could Be Threatened by Climate Change]

Coffee is one of the world's most traded commodities. Each year, more than $15 billion worth of coffee is exported from 52 countries—many of which are still developing and rely on the crop to buoy their economies. The industry employs some 26 million people worldwide.

But in recent years, keeping the world's coffee drinkers supplied has become increasingly difficult: The spread of a deadly fungus that has been linked to global warming and rising global temperatures in the tropical countries where coffee grows has researchers scrambling to create new varieties of coffee plants that can keep pace with these new threats without reducing quality.

While coffee researchers can do little to prevent climate change, they're hard at work to keep up as Earth braces for temperature increases of several degrees over the next several decades.

[VIEW: Political Cartoons About Global Warming]

"Coffee is the canary in the coal mine for climate change," says Ric Rhinehart, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. "If you can't think about the long term risk for planetary impacts, think about the short term risk for your coffee. Know that a day without coffee is potentially around the corner."

The problem has gotten so bad that on March 18, Starbucks bought its first ever coffee farm, specifically to research new climate change-resistant coffee varieties.

"The threats climate change pose isn't a surprise to us," says Haley Drage, representative for the company. "We've been working on this for more than 10 years and it's something we continue to work with farmers on."

[READ: Starbucks Brews Loyalty With Mobile Payment]

For most coffee drinkers, there's no finer bean than Arabica, a variety that originated in Ethiopia and has since been cultivated in tropical regions around the world. It accounts for most of the United States' coffee consumption.

Unfortunately, that species is particularly susceptible to climate change. In 2012, researchers at England's Royal Botanic Gardens suggested that rising temperatures could make naturally occurring Arabica become a thing of the past, with nearly 100 percent of the places where it grows in the wild—mostly Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya—becoming unsuitable for the plant by 2080.

The outlook isn't much better for countries in South and Central America that cultivate Arabica. Within a couple decades, researchers fear, coffee might have to be grown in the Northern Hemisphere, putting countries that rely on the crop in an economically tight spot.

[READ: World Bank Warns Global Warming Could Devastate Global Economy]

"By 2050, Nicaragua will hardly be a coffee producer anymore," says Tim Schilling, executive director of the World Coffee Research Center. "It's possible that instead of sourcing coffee from Guatemala, you'll be doing it from Texas or the south of France."

The good news is that besides Arabica, there's another variety of coffee that is much easier to grow. The bad news? Most coffee lovers agree that it tastes terrible.

--

Essentially all of the world's coffee comes from one of two species: Arabica and Robusta. There are others, but they don't make a dent in worldwide consumption numbers. When Americans think of coffee, they think of Arabica—it's what's used in most drip coffee makers, espresso machines and sold in specialty coffee shops. It tastes smooth and bold.

It also requires "Goldilocks" conditions in order to grow, says Mauricio Galindo, head of operations at the London-based International Coffee Organization, a group that tracks the global coffee market and threats to coffee production.

[REPORT: Climate Change Causes Plants to Flower Historically Early]



Corrected 03/28/13: An earlier version of this story misstated the total value of the worldwide coffee trade.