Your future cup of coffee, being studied today

National Geographic jolted every coffee drinker last November with an article titled “The Last Drop?," which forecast that wild Arabica coffee plants would be extinct by 2080 due to climate change.

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New York once had a Maxwell House coffee factory plugged in on one side (Hoboken), and a Domino Sugar plant on the other side (Brooklyn), to provide the daily infusion of ‘regular’ that some might say built everything else in the city. New York has always been a coffee-drinkers town; it’s hard to picture it without coffee.

Ponder the future. National Geographic jolted every coffee drinker last November with an article titled “The Last Drop?,” which forecast that wild Arabica coffee plants would be extinct by 2080 due to climate change. Arabica is the variety that is the mainstay of the world’s cultivated crop, so the prospect is alarming. The body of the article is more nuanced: hope resides in the fact that the coffee industry is already responding by cultivating new plants that will better resist rising temperatures and climate shifts.

The conundrum is that coffee plants grow best at certain altitudes, on the cool slopes of mountains; just the kind of habitat that disappears as temperatures climb. “The kinds of cloud forest climates where Arabica is native are disappearing…the plants and animals that occur in them are going to be among the most threatened on Earth,” according to a botanist cited in the Geographic piece. “Most coffee production throughout the world will be in trouble as the climate shifts.”

The article came out just days before the Association of Science and Information on Coffee conference in Costa Rica, where over 500 people devoted to solving this type of problem were gathered. Researchers from Brazil, France, Tanzania, and other points around the globe gathered to share information about everything that goes into growing coffee, from hybrid cloning to cross-breeding varietals. Climate change was on the tip of everyone’s tongues, after the release of the National Geographic piece and related research.

US News ran a similar article, with a vivid quote from the director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, Ric Reinhardt: “Coffee is the canary in the goldmine for climate change.” This is true because coffee plantations are sensitive to changes in temperature, rainfall, and wind patterns. “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 threat to coffee supplies may hit home with people in a way that all the other messages — rising sea levels, weird weather patterns, and overall increases in temperature — just don’t. Coffee connects to daily living, and having it at risk strikes a personal note, endangering our well-loved routines.

Reinhardt is being deliberately hyperbolic when he says that a day without coffee could be “just around the corner.” A total species eradication over the next 65 years gives us time to make the changes that we need to do for other reasons (like preserving the rest of our food supply, the coastal lands and cities around the world, and wine grapes, among them). Better adapted plants can help coffee farmers ride out climate changes, if the changes are not abrupt and severe.

The US News article describes research work underway: there are people like Alvaro Gaitan of Colombia’s Centro de Investigaciones de Café (Cenifcafe) — funded by the National Federation of Coffee Growers — developing varieties resistant to the diseases caused by changes in weather patterns. Farmers are planting these new varieties in all or parts of their farms. They’ve had access to the seeds through “extensionists” with offices in small town centers all over coffee growing regions since 2005.

Young farmers are often very tuned into the science and development side of coffee and are eager to try new varieties and strategies. The farm I’m currently living on in the mountains of Colombia planted Castillo years ago and confirms that it does in fact have a lower instance of roya (‘coffee rust,’ which is caused by heat and humidity, and which has created an emergency among Guatemalan growers).

US universities are devoting departments to gene-sequencing coffee, in the hopes of developing more climate-adaptive plants. And the world’s second largest green coffee trader, Swiss-owned ECOM, trader of 10 million 60kg bags of coffee last year, is pouring money into its Sustainable Management Systems (SMS) division.

Another major contributor to the study of coffee genetics is CATIE (Tropical Agriculture Research and Higher Education Center) in Turrialba, Costa Rica. They contribute the genetic material for most of the studies done elsewhere in the world, because they house the world’s largest collection of coffee (both Arabica and Robusta) varietals outside of coffee’s native Ethiopia. The wealth of genetic material available for coffee breeding should provide new varietals that of both high quality flavor, and the ability to adapt to new temperatures and humidity.

coffee3The more troubling thought is not that there won’t be tasty coffee to drink (there always will! even if we have to grow it hydroponically on the sides of office buildings in Manhattan); it’s that coffee might not be viably farmable in places where that’s all that people have done for generations.

The industry itself may be able to adapt more easily than the tens of thousands of families that grow our coffee for us today. The most important preemptive planning becomes making sure that coffee farmers are aggressively diversifying — so that if it comes to a point where they can’t grow coffee, they already know what else works well now on the land they have.

And what does all this mean for someone in New York, as you contemplate your next delicious macchiato? Or just deli regular? Maybe it means: take the bus, walk to the grocery store, carpool, and choose a staycation. Your own lighter footprint will make it easier to ensure the easy flow of plentiful and rich future coffee to New York.

Photos: Rachel Northrop

Follow Rachel’s travels to the source of our coffee, here.