Climate Change and Coffee

Caoimhe Gordon discusses how global warming is placing a student’s beverage of choice under threat


Every year, a similar trend emerges among the Trinity student body as the days begin to grow shorter. The temperature appears to be the only thing dropping faster than the average student’s enthusiasm to attend lectures. There only seems to be one necessary activity to pursue, only one phrase to utter, only one text message to type: “Will we just go for coffee?” Ara, go on, replies the average student, throwing caution to the wind (as well as the majority of their belongings in the current weather situation that our fair nation currently finds ourselves in). Then comes the inevitable discussion over where one can locate the finest cup of joe and instead of fifty minutes typing frantically on your MacBook or, God forbid, actually scribbling on some good old fashioned refill pad paper, thousands of students enter a caffeine induced haze of joy and return to campus full of new hope and confidence for the library sessions that lie ahead.

Over 2.25 billion cups of coffee are drank daily all around the globe and the consumption of coffee has risen by 43% over the past 15 years. In 2014, coffee sales in Ireland reached €81 million, according to Euromonitor consumer report. Coffee is the second most traded commodity after oil. In a post published by the now “Tab” article-obsessed Facebook page “Spotted at TCD” last year, a bin overflowing with empty takeaway cups of coffee illustrated the Trinity student body’s capability to consume high quantities of caffeine, a fact supported by over 1.2 thousand likes the photo accumulated. However, as the trend of coffee consumption in Ireland continues to rise, a lack of awareness about the threat to the current availability of coffee due to the inescapable climate change exists.

When we are asked to ponder the troubling topics of global warming, it is evident that many of us would not even consider that our beloved beverage of choice would be threatened by the changes that are occurring at rapid speed. The main- and most frightening- images that come to mind when discussing such themes usually involve the unstoppable rise of temperatures, more natural disasters and the melting of ice caps in Antarctica. All of these factors cannot be wilfully ignored nor understated any longer. The importance of this subject is constantly stressed in recent times.

At the moment, the United Nations Climate Change Conference is occurring in Paris until the 11th of December. Ahead of this gathering last Sunday, hundreds of thousands of climate change activists participated in over 2000 events across the globe to pressure world leaders into making a true effort into achieving their aims of the conference- the production of a legally binding agreement between developed nations to curb greenhouse emissions after 2020. The many effects of climate change are wider than many of us have fully considered and may eventually affect your morning brew.

There are 124 different species of coffee in existence all over the globe. However, it is likely that out of all these varying types, you have only come into contact with the two most popular. In second place lies Robusta, which makes up 30% of the earth’s coffee production and mainly features in the production of instant coffee. However, the undisputed king of the coffee species is known as Arabica, contributing the other 70% of the market share.

Grown most commonly in Ethiopia, Brazil, Vietnam and Columbia, the plant is actually quite fragile. The sensitive crop can only withstand the certain environmental factors that it has become adapted to. However due to climate change, the crop has had to endure many unexpected changes to their circumstances, including higher temperatures, long droughts punctuated by intense rainfall, more resilient pests and plant diseases. These drastic changes have impacted the growth, flowering and fruiting of the plant and have led to lower crop yields for continuous years. Naturally, this can only lead to increases of prices internationally by 25% due to decreases in supply and higher wholesale prices.

Many major research studies have been completed that offer startling insights into the future of coffee production if change is not accommodated for. In 2012, research completed by the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England conveyed the stark reality for wild coffee in Ethiopia, where Arabica originated. The grave figures they gathered predicted that the number of locations where it would be possible for wild Arabica coffee to grow could be reduced by 85% by 2080. A joint report published by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security attempts to forecast the situation the coffee industry will find themselves in in 2050. Brazil alone could see its coffee stock depleted by 25% by 2050.

Simply planting more plants alongside those who have flourished in the past and hoping for the best is not an option in this situation. It takes three to five years to be able to harvest coffee from a plant for the first time. One of the most vocal about the challenges the industry has to face has been  Doctor Timothy Schilling, executive director of the World Coffee Research institute, which is funded by the global coffee industry. In an interview with BBC News, he was frank about the disconnect between those who consume the coffee and those who produce: “”Richer countries buy it, roast it and drink it, but have not paid for the agronomy. Only now is the industry waking up and seeing the need for it. The coffee industry has realised no-one else is doing it – it’s going to have to be us.”

So now before you feel a frenzied urge to go out and consume as much caffeine as possible, there have been many plans and ideas considered and discussed to prevent the eventual wipe-out of the crop. A relatively simple strategy that has emerged is to move the plants to a higher and cool area in order to attempt to avoid the general increase in temperatures. However, this remains an unfeasibility in several low lying nations, particularly Brazil where coffee is produced on plains. Adaption manoeuvres also remain a possibility, for example the planting of trees to offer shade to the crops.

The main battlefield where the struggle for the revival for the Arabica crop is fought is not on the flat open plains of Brazil or the peaks of Ethiopia. Instead, the future of the crop lies within a laboratory. Schilling explains that the eventual aim is “to recreate Arabica, but with better breeding.” At present, the crop lacks diversity, making it more susceptible to picking up illnesses. This will not be a simple nor a swift process. Schilling believes that the process will span decades as it involves old fashioned breeding with the introduction of some modern techniques. Furthermore, an agenda that the World Coffee Research institute have endorsed is another breeding program, involving both Robusta and Arabica: “We need to take all the good things of Robusta and combine them with Arabica. Robusta is hardy and produces a lot, but it has a notoriously awful taste.”

The complete extinction of coffee from our daily lives remains almost as likely as students ignoring the 50% off Insomnia promotion. So continue to savour your daily cappuccino, your latte, your flat white and if you have notions, your macchiato and chai latte. However it is worth bearing in mind that changes to your daily cuppa may still occur. Unavoidable price increases are hovering over the horizon that may make your heart skip a beat- almost like the aftermath of that triple shot Americano during those blasted study weeks.