Buzzkill? How Climate Change Could Eventually End Coffee

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

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That recovery can be attributed to Cenicafe, which spent more than 12 years working on its first rust-resistant plants and successfully developed the Colombia Variety a year before the first confirmed case of coffee rust in the country. It has since turned its sights on what Gaitan calls the "varieties of the future," which will have to be even more resistant to climate change and potentially other diseases that have not yet hit the Americas.

"We have been working continuously on this through 80 years of research," Gaitan says.

So while Colombia is already looking past coffee rust, the same can't be said of countries such as Guatemala and Nicaragua, Rhinehart says.

"Colombia has a very sophisticated research program, but its mandate is to improve coffee for Colombian coffee farmers," he says. "By definition, it's not accessible to Guatemalans or Costa Ricans or Kenyans."

Gaitan concurs: "Unfortunately for other countries, there's not a lot of research on coffee. … For those facing the future without good scientific support, it's going to be hard."

That's where the World Coffee Research Center, headquartered at Texas A&M University, comes in. Founded in 2012 and funded by several major coffee roasters including Green Mountain Coffee, the center aims to work with groups such as Cenicafe to find out just what can be done to adapt coffee to global warming.

"There has been no global research effort that links all the different coffee research," says Schilling, the group's executive director. "Colombia has to take care of Colombia. They don't want to share. We're here to work together to produce research that will progress everybody."

For the first time, an international organization is looking at DNA sequencing of coffee plants, trying to improve the species' genetic diversity to better withstand disease and varying climates. Its goal is to eventually create coffee plants that can withstand temperature increases of up to 6 degrees Fahrenheit while "maintaining or increasing quality and yield."

[READ: How Wood Can Help in the Fight Against Climate Change]

They are trying to recreate in the lab what had been occurring in wild Arabica populations in Ethiopia for years—many naturally occurring coffee plants have evolved to be resistant to rust. Those varieties are often bred together to create more resistant cultivated varieties. But with wild populations quickly dwindling due to increasing temperatures in Africa, Schilling says the "genetic toolbox" that researchers have to play with has "quickly become constrained."

"There's not a lot of building blocks to work with," he says. "For the first time, we're trying DNA resequencing to expand the genetic potential of the species tenfold over what has been utilized before. We're trying to create coffee that's resistant to disease, and has good quality and yielding genes."

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Despite the ongoing war coffee farmers have been fighting with climate change, consumers have likely not noticed much change in their daily routines. According to the International Coffee Organization, global coffee prices spiked in 2008 due to the scarcity of Colombian Arabicas, but have since fallen to pre-2008 levels as Colombia ramped production back up and farmers in Africa learned that growing coffee under shade trees can effectively lower temperatures by as much as 5 degrees.

But as Central America continues to struggle with coffee rust, worldwide demand for coffee grows and the climate continues to worsen, there's only so much researchers can do. Coffee roasters have already started using more Robusta coffee in blends to get more bang for their buck, and though separate research is being done to improve the taste of Robusta, it's unlikely to ever rival Arabica.

"Robusta farmers have worked on a quantity basis, but in general it's just not as good tasting," Rhinehart, of the Specialty Coffee Association of America says. "It's not impossible to make Robusta taste better, but I haven't seen it yet."



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