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Climate Change and Coffee

[ 61 ] November 14, 2012 |

If this doesn’t get Americans interested in climate change, nothing will:

A cup of morning coffee could be much harder to find, and much more expensive, before the century is out thanks to climate change and the possible extinction of wild Arabica beans.

That’s the warning behind a new study by U.K. and Ethiopian researchers who say the beans that go into 70 per cent of the world’s coffee could be wiped out by 2080.

Researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew and the Environment and Coffee Forest Forum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia looked at how climate change might make some land unsuitable for Arabica plants, which are highly vulnerable to temperature change and other dangers including pests and disease.

They came up with a best-case scenario that predicts a 38 per cent reduction in land capable of yielding Arabica by 2080. The worst-case scenario puts the loss at between 90 per cent and 100 per cent.

There is a “high risk of extinction” says the study, which was published this week in the academic journal Plos One.

I personally think coffee is disgusting. But an old organizing mantra is that you have to meet people where they are at. And a lot of you really like coffee. Coffee is a very sensitive plant. I’ve seen hillsides in Central America where coffee will grow on part of it but not the other part. It needs a very particular climate. That could get much, much harder to find.

Comments (61)

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  1. DrTimmy says:

    Clearly, the only solution is to turn over the entire Treasury to NASA so that they can find a new planet for our sensitive little plant.

    I do not want to live in a world without coffee.

    • blowback says:

      You won’t, the study only concerned native wild Arabica in Ethiopia which in terms of coffee drunk is a very minor concern. However, when it comes to genetic diversity it’s a fucking disaster. What is required is for someone wealthy to decide to fund a genetic survey of Ethiopian wild Arabica coffee which preserves that genetic diversity. And don’t say Starbucks because they would patent it all and at some point their bean counters would decide that the information was worthless and destroy it all.

  2. Murc says:

    So basically, we’ll turn into Earth-2 from Fringe, but with less Anna Torv.

  3. Nathan of Perth says:

    “I personally think coffee is disgusting.”

    I always knew there was something not quite right about you.

    • DrTimmy says:

      Agreed. Erik will not be invited to colonize our happy new planet.

    • Aaron B. says:

      For once, I totally agree with Erik.

    • Marek says:

      What the hell do you drink before beer o’clock, Erik?

      • cpinva says:

        it’s always 5pm somewhere in the world.

        What the hell do you drink before beer o’clock, Erik?

        that said, coffee, nectar of the gods. gets me conscious in the morning, and a fresh brewed cup goes really nicely with capt. morgan’s spiced rum. made going trick or treating so much easier, when my children were young.

    • Observer says:

      You beat me to it.

    • scott says:

      No shit. That single statement warrants discounting everything he says, including “the sky is blue,” by at least 50%. When the conservative nutjobs were skewering Silver, wasn’t one of their all-purpose diatribes that he was part of that elite, snooty, liberal coffee-drinking crowd? Is Erik going fascist on us? Inquiring minds want to know!

    • Barry Freed says:

      It’s one of the tell tale signs of being a Communist.

      • Sev says:

        Coffee Consuming Cultural Partisan. I always wondered what those letters stood for.

      • ajay says:

        On the contrary. Modern capitalism was born in coffee. Lloyd’s of London! The Bank of England! The London Stock Exchange! All coffeehouses. Coffee’s a cheap drink grown by poorly-paid labour, exported vast distances, and sold at a tremendous markup by huge multinational corporations, to people who drink it so they can work harder. It’s capitalism in liquid form.

        Now tea, that’s what your commie drinks. Russians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Nepalese… tea drinkers all the way.

        • Linnaeus says:

          Now tea, that’s what your commie drinks.

          And British imperialists.

        • Barry Freed says:

          We’re not disagreeing. My meaning was that coffee abstention is a sure sign that you’re dealing a some full-fledged genuine dyed-in-the-wool, Uncle Joe lovin’ Chairman Mao spouting, hard-core Communist cadre

          • ajay says:

            Ah, sorry, I was disagreeing with Sev, who thought that coffee was Communist.

            Linnaeus: not at all; your actual imperialist – the chap who’s out there grinding the faces of the dusky native beneath the heel of his jungle boot – drinks gin and tonic, thus protecting himself from malaria (tonic) while remaining indolent and aggressive (gin). The people back at home are the ones drinking the tea – and, not coincidentally, sitting up late in the British Museum Reading Room writing manifestos.

  4. mattc says:

    Time to open a Happicuppa franchise!

  5. Jamie says:

    Charlie Stross wrote a short story bout how this ends. very funny. I think it was printed it _Toast_, maybe elsewhere.

    I say this as a huge coffee fan. Without a cup or two, I couldn’t find my way to the whiskey. And then where would my department be?

  6. scott g says:

    well, there’s always hemlock.

  7. Manta says:

    If (when?) the climate changes, wouldn’t appear other places where coffee can grow?
    I mean: some land where coffes nows grows will become unsuitiable: but won’t other land where now it does not grow become suitable? Did they address this point?

    • Tom says:

      This logic is the kind of stupid thing people who don’t care about climate change say all the time.

      “Wouldn’t it be nice if we just had summer all year long?” says the idiot from Philadelphia.

      No. No it would not.

      • Manta says:

        And yet you did not answer the simple question: did they estimate how much new land would become suitable for coffee?
        If you don’t know, please don’t answer with platitudes (I don’t know either, that’s why I am asking).

        • Dave says:

          a) almost none, because b) other things need to be grown there to KEEP PEOPLE ALIVE, and c) since we already use all the best soils [which have taken thousands of years of geological processes to develop], have effectively consumed the historical stock of natural phosphate fertilizers, and are about to run out of oil-based ones, ANY shift in growing zones will be disastrous, not least because d) it pushes ‘temperate’ climate towards the poles [if you're lucky] where there are hard physical limits on available daylight well beyond the tolerances of most staple food-crops.

          Your question is thus mind-numbingly short-sighted. OK?

          • Manta says:

            Point b) applies equally well now: based on your logic, there would be no coffee NOW because we need the soil to grow food.

            Point d) has nothing to do with coffee cultivation, and c) has nothing to do with climate change.

            Point a) is an attempt at answer, but it’s wholly unsupported (which does not mean it may not be true).

            Again: if you don’t know what you are talking about, please refrain from answering.

            • Tom says:

              It may, theoretically on some rich guy’s villa in California, be possible in the future to grow coffee. But as Dave points out, there’s a whole host of environmental and ecological reasons this is going to be difficult if not impossible on a large scale. (And yes, not all of them are strictly related to climate change, as we are facing many environmental problems not directly related to climate change. They all exist together.)

              The reason your question sounded short-sighted is that agricultural production is enormously complicated and SO MANY things are going to be fucked up by climate change that there is essentially no reason to believe that we can just start growing certain types of crops in a more northern locale and assume it’ll work out. This is what I mean when I make fun of people who think global warming consists of little more than things getting generally warmer for them. No, it means ecological catastrophe. Coupled, of course, with political catastrophe. (Even if we could start to grow coffee in the U.S., what does this do to the agricultural economies of Central and South America?)

            • Rarely Posts says:

              I don’t know the answers with respect to coffee specifically. However, from my initial review of the literature, it’s unlikely that we’ll simply see shifts in climate where the lost agriculturally productive areas will be offset by newer, more agriculturally productive areas. See Climate Change 2007, the Physical Science Basis, produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Although a handful of regions will become more agriculturally productive, it seems likely that more regions will be rendered less agriculturally productive. A lot of that is actually due to changes in precipitation levels than just temperature specifically (we’re going to see more arid lands and currently arid lands will get worse). It also looked, based on my initial review, like the climate areas where coffee thrives (such as Central America) may be the least likely to re-develop elsewhere. It looked like grains were going to be easier to find replacement land for, though I honestly am mostly speculating at that level, because it was just an initial review of the material.

              Also, we likely will have to devote more agricultural land to necessary foodstuffs because ocean acidification and overfishing are going to reduce the productivity of the oceans. So, it is actually true that we will probably need to devote more soil to growing food than we do now. And, of course, growing world population is part of the challenge there.

              • Manta says:

                Thank you, Rarely.

              • cpinva says:

                that, i think, is the kind of answer manta was looking for, not to suggest that climate change was necessarily a good thing, clearly it isn’t.

                you made a comment though:

                And, of course, growing world population is part of the challenge there.

                it would seem to me (and i’m just guessing here) that the various adverse affects of climate change, especially on food production, would militate a decrease in world population, not an increase. specifically, in those areas where food production capacity is reduced, and the ability to augment food stocks with imports is also reduced. there is some scientific evidence, based on archeological data, that women in highly stressed, malnourished states tend to be less fecund than their less stressed, well nourished counterparts.

                and no, this is not a “the body has a magical mechanism for shutting that down” kind of stupid assertion. this is based on science. females, of any species, require a minimum level of nourishment, to maintain fertility, during their child bearing years, starvation tends to not be good for that sort of thing.

                not that this is good way to reduce the world’s population, just wondering if this will be one of the results of decreased food production, as a consequence of climate change?

        • Jameson Quinn says:

          See above. The article is about native coffee growing wild.

          I live in Guatemala and drink coffee that my brother-in-law picked. Looking at this country alone, I’d estimate that with a 2-3 degree temperature rise, the amount of land suitable for commercial coffee would shrink, but not disappear. But again, this post is misleading; the study says nothing about commercial coffee.

      • sparks says:

        They want an L.A. summer all year. They’ll get a NYC summer all year.

    • djw says:

      It’s a good question. I sincerely doubt the study didn’t at least consider the possibility. If I had to guess I’d say it’s because current conditions necessary to grow coffee include both a particular climate and a set of soil conditions. Perhaps those soil conditions aren’t present in the North, and re-creating them isn’t plausible.

    • Manta says:

      The coffee plant was introduced quite late outside East Africa: First cultivation in Europe (also first cultivation outside of east Africa/Arabia): 1616

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coffee_bean

    • tt says:

      Here is the paper: http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0047981#s1

      The methods used in this study actually naturally allow an answer to your question, but the authors, for reasons they justify in the discussion, choose as explicit assumption that there will be no range expansion even where their model says the new climate would be suitable for cultivation. You can decide for yourself whether you agree or disagree with their reasoning.

      • Manta says:

        Thank you very much: it also addresses a point I did not understand.
        As stated, the article deals with the distribution of WILD coffee plants:
        ” As part of a future-proofing resource, and especially for providing genetic potential for mitigating climate change, indigenous populations are perceived as a key resource for the medium- to long-term sustainability of Arabica production”

        And I find their reasons quite convincing:
        “The likelihood of migration and establishment by Arabica is assumed to be extremely limited based on insubstantial dispersal and colonization ability, especially in stressed environments.”, etc.

    • Sev says:

      Arabica is mountain grown. Mountains are cone shaped. Think about the area available as you move up the cone. Many endangered species are in the same predicament.

  8. newsouthzach says:

    Well, maybe the coffee-drinking intellectuals in San Francisco will care — but the red-blooded, Budweiser-swilling Real Americans couldn’t care less, am I right?

  9. Incontinentia Buttocks says:

    Remember, Erik, “coffee-drinking” was one of the epithets of elitism that the unskewed crowd threw at Nate Silver’s fanbase in the run-up to Romney’s victory (well, defeat) in recent weeks. Maybe real Americans once drank coffee, but your failure to see that coffee is now as Americn as endive, windsurfing, anything other than cheese whiz on a Philly cheese steak, and opposing secession makes you seem very French…if you know what I mean!

  10. rm says:

    So what I’ve learned from LGM today is that we can try to address climate change and save our supply of coffee, maple syrup, and, like, food, or else we can embrace neoliberal union-busting “free”-market ideology and save our supply of Twinkies.

    Someday there will be an armed compound in the Yukon where the world’s last billionaire protects the world’s last hoard of Twinkies.

  11. shah8 says:

    I have piles of puerh tea,lifetimes of it! And puerh tea gets better as it ages through the decades! (certain restrictions may apply) *My* source of caffeine is in no danger of being interrupted.

    Aaron B. might like the old tea, much of it is nonbitter in its psychoactive glory, but young tea can be very bitter, which is why it’s aged.

  12. FLRealist says:

    The standing joke at our house is that if I am cranky, my hubby and boys tell each other to check to see if Mom’s caffiene level is too low. Losing coffee would not be a good thing for the sake of my relationships.

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