Unfortunately, we may not be enjoying the benefits or pleasures of coffee too much longer. According to ecologists, there’s a good chance that in twenty or thirty years, the varieties of coffee that we drink today will be extinct and rather than a robust cup of joe, we’ll be drinking either a coffee substitute or some almost-coffee hybrid that only vaguely resembles the drink we enjoy today.
The problem, of course, is the accelerating pace of climate change. Successful coffee cultivation has three prerequisites: 1) a warm, highly stable tropical climate with elevations that keep air temperature between 64 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, 2) rich soil full of natural nutrients that have developed over millennia, and 3) a diverse ecological environment that’s pest and disease resistant.
Coffee is such a fragile crop that it’s only grown in a thin band called the “coffee belt” close to the equator. It simply won’t grow anywhere else, even though coffee such is a huge cash crop that it would be wildly profitable for anyone who managed to figure out how to grow it under less stringent conditions.
Unfortunately, the “coffee belt” is extremely vulnerable to climate change. If the air is too cold or too hot, it stunts growth of the coffee plant, resulting in yellowed, tumor-ridden beans, which produce a bitter, undrinkable goop. It doesn’t help to move the plants further up or down the mountain because the problem is instability, not simple warming.
Climate change also creates environmental stress, which spreads parasites, pests, and plant diseases. All of these increase the fragility of the coffee crop and even create the possibility of a species-destroying rot, like the one that destroyed the true banana in the 1950s. (What we eat today is a rot-resistant hybrid.)
Almost all the coffee cultivated into the world today is one of two species, Arabica or Robusta, either of which might be wiped out in this way. There are, in fact, other species of coffee and scientists are hoping that, if worse comes to worst, a different species can be bred into coffee to make it less fragile and more resistant.
Unfortunately, almost all of these species exist only in Ethiopia, a country that climate change is already hammering. As the environmental non-profit USAID points out:
“Ethiopia, home to 90 million people, is one of the world’s most drought-prone countries. The country faces numerous development challenges that exacerbate its vulnerability to climate change [including] increases in temperature, erratic rainfall and unpredictability of seasonal rain, and increased incidences of drought and other extreme events.”
In other words, even as climate change threatens coffee as it exists today, climate change is also eating away at the root source to which we might turn to for viable replacement species.
And even then, there’s no guarantee that a rot- and pest- resistant species would taste the same as the coffee we enjoy today. It might be like today’s bananas–a crop that physically resembles the original but without the taste.
What to do? Well, take the time to savor each cup of coffee you drink, while you’ve still got something to drink that’s worth savoring. Beyond that, you can stop electing and enabling climate-change deniers. But you already knew that, I’m sure.