Peak Arabica Coffee? Top coffee scientist warns, “Coffee production is under threat from global warming.”

TIMBO, Colombia: … in the last few years, coffee yields have plummeted here and in many of Latin America’s other premier coffee regions as a result of rising temperatures and more intense and unpredictable rains, phenomena that many scientists link partly to global warming.

Coffee plants require the right mix of temperature, rainfall and spells of dryness for beans to ripen properly and maintain their taste. Coffee pests thrive in the warmer, wetter weather….

Purveyors fear that the Arabica coffee supply from Colombia may never rebound “” that the world might, in effect, hit “peak coffee.”

Climate-driven food insecurity is helping drive global political instability, as explored in my ongoing series. But it may take a while for the direct impact of higher food prices to be noticed by Americans, since, for instance, wheat comprises only a few percent of the cost of a loaf of bread.


The New York Times article, “Heat Damages Colombia Coffee, Raising Prices,” shows that climate change doesn’t just hit the staples: “The shortage of high-end Arabica coffee beans is also being felt in New York supermarkets and Paris cafes, as customers blink at escalating prices.” It is unusually clear on the impact of global warming:

“Coffee production is under threat from global warming, and the outlook for Arabica in particular is not good,” said Peter Baker, a coffee specialist with CABI, a research group in Britain that focuses on agriculture and the environment, noting that climate changes, including heavy rains and droughts, have harmed crops across many parts of Central and South America.

A top coffee scientist, he has rattled trade forums by warning, Cassandra-like, of the possibility of “peak coffee,” meaning that, like oil supplies, coffee supplies might be headed for an inexorable decline unless growers make more concerted efforts to expand production globally.

The Specialty Coffee Association of America warned this year, “It is not too far-fetched to begin questioning the very existence of specialty coffee.”

Obviously, the threat from global warming to specialty coffee would hardly be among the top 100 most worrisome impacts the world faces if we stay on our current path of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions (see “A stunning year in climate science reveals that human civilization is on the precipice”). But the relatively delicate Arabica does appear to be yet one more canary in the coal mine for what’s to come:

Arabica and Robusta coffee account for virtually all consumption. With its more delicate taste and lower caffeine content, Arabica is more popular and more expensive, though generally more finicky in its weather needs. Robusta production dominates in Asia and Africa.

Colombia is the No. 2 Arabica exporter after Brazil, where production is centered on larger, more mechanized farms and continues to grow.

The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation says high fertilizer prices have also dented yields. But it agrees with a 2009 report from the International Coffee Organization that concluded, “Climatic variability is the main factor responsible for changes in coffee yields all over the world.”

Average temperatures in Colombia’s coffee regions have risen nearly one degree in 30 years, and in some mountain areas the increase has been double that, says Cenicaf©, the national coffee research center. Rain in this area was more than 25 percent above average in the last few years.

At the new, higher temperatures, the plants’ buds abort or their fruit ripens too quickly for optimum quality. Heat also brings pests like coffee rust, a devastating fungus that could not survive the previously cool mountain weather. The heavy rains damage the fragile Arabica blossoms, and the two-week dry spells that prompt the plant to flower and produce beans occur less often, farmers say. Arabica beans take about seven months to mature.

“Half a degree can make a big difference for coffee “” it is adapted to a very specific zone,” said N©stor Ria±o, a specialist in agroclimatology for Cenicaf©. “If temperature rises even a bit, the growth is affected, and the plagues and diseases rise.”

Imagine what will happen when temperatures change by several degrees, as seems all but unavoidable now (see M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F “” with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F).

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