Peak Coffee Incoming: Climate Change is Killing Our Buzz


Photo credit: dyobmit/CC BY
"It is not too far-fetched to begin questioning the very existence of specialty coffee."
That's a quote from a coffee trade group, the Specialty Coffee Association of America, that's one among many such organizations warning that climate change is pushing us towards peak coffee. Yes, it's another 'peak' -- first oil, then fish, then chocolate, now coffee -- Richard Heinberg's 'peak everything' thesis is looking more and more astute. In this case, it's because coffee, like cocoa, are picky, finicky plants -- they require just the right temperature and amount of rainfall to produce a decent yield. And climate change is screwing it all up: yields are way down, it's becoming impossible to plant in certain regions, and as a result, prices of coffee beans are soaring. As a result, higher end coffee may vanish altogether, and the cheap stuff you buy in Costco by the 5 pound tin may become a luxury item.The New York Times reports that over the last decade, coffee yields have plummeted "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." You've got to love that New York Timesian approach to tiptoeing around climate issues. Yes, "link partly". Please -- it's quite well understood that climate change is already having a devastating impact on crop yields around the world, for the myriad reasons cited right in this very article.

Like, for instance, how the coffee growers' research organization Cenicafé recorded a 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature in Colombian coffee growing regions over the last 30 years -- and in the mountain regions, twice that. And, since warmer air holds more water vapor, rainfall has increased a staggering 25% over that time -- which drowns crops and ruins yield. The warmer temperatures also mean that a deadly fungus called 'coffee rust' doesn't die off in the winter, and kills more coffee plants than it otherwise would have. That's global warming at work, ladies and gentlemen.

And this, as Bill McKibben would say, is our new Eaarth -- where climate change is already reshaping the world. But, to again borrow his parlance, that's way down there, miles away from us Americans and Europeans. What does this mean for us? Obviously, less coffee means higher prices, so let's start there:

The shortage of high-end Arabica coffee beans is also being felt in New York supermarkets and Paris cafes ... Purveyors fear that the Arabica coffee supply from Colombia may never rebound -- that the world might, in effect, hit "peak coffee." In 2006, Colombia produced more than 12 million 132-pound bags of coffee, and set a goal of 17 million for 2014. Last year the yield was nine million bags.


Photo: kangotraveler, Flickr, CC

Furthermore, "Brands like Maxwell, Yuban and Folgers" have increased their prices by an average of 25% since last summer. And profits of "high-end coffee chains like Starbucks and Green Mountain have been eroded. Coffee futures of Arabica, the high-end bean that comes predominantly from Latin America, have risen more than 85 percent since last June, to $2.95 a pound, partly over concerns about supply, extreme weather and future quality, said George Kopp, an analyst at the International Futures Group in Chicago."

Which is to say, coffee may not be a tenable business for long, at least not in the Starbucks-in-every-neighborhood model that's been dominant over the last decade. Coffee may yet turn into another luxury available only to the rich, especially as thinning supply is met with booming demand in BRIC countries. By the way, I can already see the anti-climate blogs drafting their headlines: "Liberal Elitist Global Warming Alarmists Worried They Won't be Able to Sip Lattes."

But I digress. So, will it be the end of the world if we can't have our morning espresso? Nope, except maybe for that one woman who works in your office who's always saying she'll "just die" if she doesn't get her Starbucks. But it will indeed be a devastating blow to coffee-dependent economies around the world. And let's not forget that the factors that are making coffee-growing impossible are also making life tougher for most other organisms in the region, too. It's time to wake up -- climate change is happening here and now, and it's killing our buzz.

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