In a Beanshell: How Coffee Is the Story of Climate Injustice
By now, you’ve likely seen the million explainer headlines on what the climate crisis means for coffee. “Your Morning Cup of Coffee Is in Danger.” “How Climate Change Is Killing Coffee.” And on and on.
But what these headlines fail to capture is how the story of what’s happening to coffee captures in a bean shell – ok, nutshell – the larger story of climate change across the world. Where yes, the crisis affects us all, but it affects us very, very differently across lines of geography and often race and class.
And that’s a story worth telling.
From Global Warming to (Too) Hot Coffee
Let’s start with the facts.
A global coffee crisis is coming because climate change is making the once prime coffee lands of the world too hot.
So, for those of us who love our Starbucks, Dunkin’, Illy, or other brands (together accounting for some 500 billion cups of coffee consumed a year), we could be faced with higher prices and poorer tasting coffee as climate change continues.
A recent study also found that – thanks to rising temperatures – by 2050, the amount of land suitable for growing coffee will have fallen by 50 percent. To make matters worse, 60 percent of coffee species are at risk of extinction, which means it will be harder to find a species of coffee that can grow in new warmer climates.
First World Problems: Excuse Me? How Much?
Ahh that sweet, robust smell of coffee in the morning.
In the developed world at least, it’s hard for many of us to imagine life without coffee. It’s been the lifeline for countless students staying up all night studying for finals. It’s the taste that launched a thousand first dates. It’s gotten millions up for that big meeting.
When you go to your local store of coffee shop, there are two types of coffee bean you can get: Arabica or Robusta.
Robusta beans are used primarily for instant coffee and accounts for about 40 percent of the world’s coffee production, whereas Arabica beans are more mild, aromatic coffee and account for the remaining 60 percent.
But climate change is threatening to wipe out 60 percent of all coffee species, The result is a planet with greatly diminished crop diversity that could leave us stuck with varieties that both taste worse and cost more.
In the United States, a cup of black coffee averages about $2.99. That’s clearly not nothing, especially if it’s three dollars you spend every day, sometimes more than once for some. But for that $2.99, you can at least be reasonably confident you’re getting a quality, good tasting coffee.
However, as temperatures rise and droughts intensify, good coffee will become increasingly difficult to grow and expensive to buy. So, your $3 for a cup of black coffee may now become $6. And six bucks changes the proposition pretty quickly, taking that daily cup out of reach for a whole lot more people. Oh, if you are willing to pay it, instead of that sweet, full-bodied smell that promises joy (or at least something like mental function) for millions, you get to breathe in something dank and musty. You know, like stale coffee.
“Make no mistake,” says Howard Schultz, former Starbucks CEO. “Climate change is going to play a bigger role in affecting the quality and integrity of coffee.”
For those of us who can afford $3 for a cup of coffee, this is a big deal. But the real issue – and why we really should be paying attention to what’s happening to coffee production – is for those getting us those beans in the first place.
Tightening Belts across the Coffee Belt?
For coffee farmers, the threat of rising temperatures isn’t about convenience but losing both their livelihood and culture. This is a massive problem for the 25 million small farmers who produce 80 percent of the world’s coffee.
These coffee farmers are located in the world’s Coffee Belt—South and Central America, Southeast Asia, and Africa—spans the across the globe along the Equator.
For coffee to be grown effectively the optimal coffee-growing conditions need to include cool to warm tropical climates, rich soils, and few pests or diseases.
For many coffee farmers, all they know is how to grow coffee. As Digndris Soto Londono, a Columbian coffee farmer, said, “We love [coffee] because we were born within coffee, we were raised by coffee.”
So, in a warming world the optimal coffee growing areas are shrinking. Since 2013, Columbia has lost 7 percent of its optimal coffee growing region. And with prime coffee growing lands shrinking, farmers increasingly face one of four choices, none of them good:
- Move fields to higher grounds, fueling the deforestation of virgin forests
- Plant new crops after years or even lifetimes farming coffee
- Embrace new techniques to protect their coffee crops
- Leave home and emigrate to other nations
Farmers are already feeling the changes. In Columbia, when Gustavo Patiño bought his land up at higher elevations back in 1987, he was the outlier. He says, “[W]hen we started the plantation, the neighbors said that we were crazy, it is too cold for coffee — now the altitude [of 5,800 feet] is just right for growing it.” That’s not all. “[We’ve] noticed big weather changes in the last 30 years,” he continues, “On the one hand, we have more extremely sunny days, and at other times there is too much rain.”
For those that cannot move to higher ground, options are either planting new crops, such as bananas, or adopting techniques to protect their coffee crops—such as shade trees. But for many, that’s easier said than done when they don’t have the capital to do either.
If changes to the physical climate weren’t bad enough for small farmers, changes to the business climate mean many are getting squeezed on both sides.
"Nowadays, coffee planting and farming is equivalent to losing money,” said Fabio Enrique Hoyos Salazar, a Columbian coffee farmer. The reason for this is coffee prices have dropped so low that most farmer barely make a profit, even when coffee demand is so high.
So as climate changes worsens, we “are going to [see how climate change has] disproportionately affect the people who have the least ability to absorb them,” said Hanna Neuschwander, communications director of World Coffee Research. “Over the next 50 years you are going to see a trend toward consolidation where only the most efficient producers can stay in the game.”
The bottom line is this: In the developed world, rising temperatures can mean the difference of a few bucks for a cup of coffee. Yes, it’ll be a drag. But on the other side of the world, it’s the difference between success and failure, the ability to support a family or being forced to move. And that’s the real injustice.
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