Global Warming-Loving Beetle Threatens World's Coffee Supply

coffee beans photo

Photo via Plinkk via Flickr Creative Commons

This year's coffee prices area already at a 12-year high due to low crop yields in South America, but it looks like prices could tighten again in the future if a particular beetle continues to bask in warming weather. Arabica coffee, a climate-sensitive plant, is grown in Ethiopia and Latin America. However, Ethiopia and other regions have seen a slow but steady rise in average temperatures, more variable rain fall, and what could be most devastating, the spread of the coffee berry borer beetle which enjoys just such a temperature rise to be able to move into new locations. Non-existent in the late 1960s, the beetle is now widespread, and could become a major problem in future coffee crops. The Guardian writes that no effective removal method has been successful against the beetles -- not even pesticides, which are a last resort anyway -- and that the bug is already causing over $500 million in damages on an annual basis.

"Coffee may not be a basic food crop, such as wheat, but it is arguably one of the most important agricultural products. Valued as high as $90 billion a year, coffee, which is grown in more than 70 countries, is one of the most heavily traded commodities in terms of monetary value. Seventy percent of the world's coffee comes from small, family-owned farms and more than 100 million people are dependent on the crop for their livelihood," states the article.

Researchers believe that rising global temperatures are the reason the beetle has spread to nearly every coffee-growing area in the world. It requires a temperature of about 68 degrees F to reproduce, and Ethiopia hit that temperature around 1984. They've found that for every 1.8 degrees F rise in temperature, the coffee berry borer becomes 8.5% more infectious, laying more eggs and causing more physical damage to the coffee berries. And the bugs are hitting everywhere from Africa to South America to Hawaii -- farmers don't even have the option of escaping to higher elevations for their crops, nor do planting shade trees seem to be much of an option as not only do farmers feel this causes smaller yields, but also it would take years for shade trees to grow to maturity and be effective in reducing the temperature over crops. (Though coffee grown in the shade of trees benefits from natural pest control and pollination as the trees provide habitat for a much broader range of species. In the long run, it certainly seems worth a try.)

There doesn't seem to be any solution as of yet for the problem of the coffee berry beetle, and it is becoming a perfect example of the consequences of global climate change. One key researcher of the coffee berry borer, Juliana Jaramillo, a biologist at Kenya's International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology, states that the industry has two options -- "Either they start investing in climate research, or they educate the consumers to drink something else."

Coffee growers in Africa have been worried about the impacts of climate change for several years. The shift in temperatures, rainfall, and even loss of species biodiversity has major negative impacts for the sensitive crops. And now, an insidious pest. While the idea of switching to crops with a lower market value might seem ludicrous to some farmers now (and switching from coffee to some other drink equally ludicrous to consumers) it might be the only option left if no viable solution to the coffee berry borer beetle surfaces.

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