Climate Change has become a political debate separating the US along political lines. Most scientists agree, no matter what their affiliation, that it is not a matter of if climate change is real, it’s a matter of when it effects will start to be truly devastating. To be clear, it is not a question of when its effects will begin if you ask most scientists because it is believed that we already see its effects unfold in multiple ways.
When it comes to the coffee industry, climate change or, as it was previously known, global warming, can have a direct and devastating effect. In fact, it already is. Recently, a highly-specified study showed that even short-term heat waves could have a devastating effect on coffee agriculture. Oregon State University has a College of Forestry which recently studied the effects on coffee plants if they were exposed to high temperatures for short amounts of time. In one study they exposed coffee plants to 120 ˚F temperatures for 45 minutes. Their results showed that even for that short amount of time, the coffee plant could be so damaged as to lose its flower and fruit-producing capabilities. They chose this particular temperature because of evidenced-based predictions which point to this being a definitive possibility for climate change.
The study was looking specifically at Arabica plants’ abilities to withstand higher leaf temperatures. They found that younger plants had a more difficult time recovering from “heat stress” but, overall, none of the plants were able to flower or produce fruit after a minimum of 45 minutes of heat exposure. What it means for them to recover from heat stress refers to their photosynthesis process. They made sure to test the plants in partial sunlight exposure conditions, replicating standard coffee growing conditions worldwide.
Moving beyond climate change’s effects on coffee production, we must also remember coffee production effects on climate change, as well. More and more, news has been emerging that the increased global demand for products like chocolate and coffee is having detrimental effects on African tropical forests. Stanford released a study that showed that coffee, cocoa, rice and other types of crops are reaching such a global demand that global companies are buying large swaths of land in these forests and clear-cutting them to install more plants. There are fewer regulations in areas like the Congo Basin which would prevent this type of action, and the labor there is cheaper than other parts of the world, like South America where the coffee industry is abundant.
When entire swaths of forest are clear-cut and removed, the ecosystems dependent on that forest are changed or destroyed altogether. This means that other living creatures and plants are destroyed, animals and plants that could provide any number of necessary functions to the planet and our species. I remember my Environmental Science teacher in high school saying that scientists believed that the cure for the common cold or even the cure for cancer could possibly exist in the millions of undiscovered creatures and plants in the tropical rainforests. I know that is idealistic; but, there are very real effects that are being tracked and documented when it comes to climate change and the destruction of entire ecosystems, like that which is caused by deforestation. The fact that human beings rely on oxygen to survive and that a majority of our oxygen supply comes from trees should be enough to make the fact of this deforestation terrifying.
One solution that is batted about by some is breeding plants to adapt to the changing environment and perhaps plants which need less land or which could coexist with the already occupied territory so that deforestation is not necessary. With rising climates, this means finding plants that are adapted to colder climates or higher altitudes, or, conversely, to higher temperatures, though scientists seem to believe higher heat means less plant survival and thriving. Some plants have been found that may be resistant to frosts, for example.
The Smithsonian recently released information about the potential for some coffee plants to grow beneath a canopy of trees in a diverse ecosystem; in particular, they cited an “agroforest” of this source which provided a lush habitat for migratory birds. Initially, some coffee types were grown in forests; it is just more efficient to build in a clean-cut land space. The problem is that there is a high price to pay for that efficiency and convenience, and part of that price could be an environment and a climate that is no longer suitable for growing coffee and other crops that much of the world desires and/or relies on. This would be a simple solution, to go back to the old ways, where coffee is grown in forest environments, helping to provide an ecosystem that is beneficial to animals, plants, and the human population as well as minimizing the detrimental effects of climate change.