How Climate Change is Affecting Coffee

You’ve probably seen the clickbaity titles on your news and Facebook feeds announcing that coffee is in danger and that in our lifetime, we may not be able to have this beverage that has become a staple and necessity to one-billion people worldwide. Is it true? (Queue the dramatic “dun-dun-dun”). Well, as the climate is changing and we’re hitting new record highs in temperature each year, we hate to say it, but yes, we’re tracking that way. In this blog, we’ll discuss what coffee is, where it’s grown, what it needs to thrive, its environmental threats, and what we can do to help keep coffee alive.

What is Coffee?

coffee beans in a cooling tray of a roaster

Coffee derives from the Coffea plant in the flowering plant family called Rubiaceae. These plants are grown all around the equator in the Coffee Belt. There are up to 150 known species of Coffea, all differing in shape and size. Though Coffea plants can grow up to 30ft tall, they’re typically pruned to 8 feet to help them conserve energy and produce a maximum harvest. These plants form beautiful white flowers before producing fruit known as coffee cherries. It takes about one year for a cherry to mature after first flowering, but it will take about five years of growth and development to reach full fruit production. These plants can live up to 100 years but are most productive and fruitful between the ages of 7 and 20. The cycle of producing fruit doesn’t happen at the same time. It’s a continual and repeated process. It’s normal to see a coffee plant with flowers, green fruit, and ripe fruit simultaneously. Each coffee tree produces about 10 pounds of coffee cherries per harvest, which equates to approximately 1-2 lbs of coffee beans. Inside the coffee cherries lie two dense, green coffee beans. That’s right— the coffee beans roasted and brewed to make your delicious cup of coffee are the seeds inside a small piece of fruit. The cherries contain caffeine, antioxidants, and wonderful flavors, which enrich the coffee beans and serve as a protective layer from insects and wildlife as the seed develops. Sometimes, roasters and cafes will use the outer layers of the coffee cherry (Cascara) to brew tea or other specialty coffee drinks, but most often, it’s used as fertilizer or simply composted and not used at all. 

The Anatomy of a Coffee Bean

anatomy of a coffee bean by Sweet Maria's

Many layers surround the coffee bean. The cherry’s outer skin is called the Exocarp. Depending on the variety, this layer remains green until it ripens to red, yellow, orange, or pink. The following layers are the Mesocarp and Pectin layers or better known as the Pulp and Mucilage. These layers are full of sugars, which are essential for the coffee when it undergoes a fermentation process to remove the fruit from the seed. The bean itself is covered in a paper-like skin called Endocarp or Parchment. The Parchment is typically removed from the bean, but sometimes beans are sold with the Parchment intact. The cherries usually have two beans inside, covered by one final layer called Spermoderm or Silver Skin. This layer is a group of cells firmly attached to the beans that it usually doesn’t come off until the beans are roasted. When the Silver Skin comes off in roasting, it’s called Chaff. The seeds are technically called Endosperm, but we know them as coffee beans. As we mentioned before, there are two coffee beans inside every coffee cherry. They grow separately from each other and vary in shape and size. A very small, 5% of coffee cherries will only have one bean inside the fruit. These are known as Peaberries, and they are smaller, rounder, and denser and are formed when there is insufficient pollination or improper fertilization. This can happen because of genetic or environmental factors like exposure to severe weather conditions. It’s not proven whether these beans produce more or less desirable flavors, but many believe that their roundness does allow them to move around better in a roaster, which can help avoid inconsistent roasts. 

Species and Subspecies 

coffee plant

Whether a Peaberry or a typical Flat Berry coffee bean, many species derive from these fruits. There are up to 150 different species of the Coffea plant, but the Arabica species takes the lead, making up about 70% of the world’s coffee production. The other common species are Robusta and Liberica. Still, only the coffee from the Arabica species currently meets the specialty coffee requirements, which is brewed in most cafés globally. Within each species, you’ll find several variances of coffee categorized into three subgroups: Varieties, Cultivars, and Hybrids. Understanding the differences in how coffee is bred and grown will better help you conceptualize the variances between species. So first, naturally bred coffee (natural selection) means that as mutations naturally form in the genome, they are passed onto the offspring creating a variety. Common varieties include Bourbon, Typica, and Heirlooms. The other is selective breeding or artificial selection. This is when plants are intentionally bred using horticulture or agricultural techniques. These subspecies are known as Cultivars (short for cultivated varieties). Hybrids are a cross between two different species or forms of the same species. These can occur in both natural and selective breeding. Other species exist and thrive in different environments and regions across the Coffee Belt.

The Coffee Belt

the coffee belt

Coffee plants often require a terrain with rich soil, mild temperatures, frequent rain, and shaded sun. The health and development of coffee rely heavily upon specific environmental factors along with the maintenance and care of farmers. The highest quality coffees are typically grown 2,000-6,000 feet above sea level. The higher elevations and cooler temperatures are thought to slow the development of the cherry. The longer the coffee matures, the more complex sugars and flavors it will have. Coffee needs to develop in stable temperatures between 59-75 degrees Fahrenheit and have sufficient rainfall throughout the year. These specific climates are typically found around the equator, zone 10 for all you gardeners. This region is known as the Coffee Belt. Coffee is grown in more than 50 countries worldwide, but that is shifting as environmental changes are making it harder to grow coffee in areas where it once flourished, and on the flip side, making it possible to grow in places it couldn’t before. 

Coffee At Risk

Coffee plants need very specific temperatures, soil, and environments to grow in and continually produce coffee each year. With the rising temperature and lack of rainfall and humidity, coffee plants aren’t growing and reproducing as they usually would. Climate change has caused typical weather patterns to be inconsistent, making harvest times and crop quality nearly impossible to control and predict. Though rainfall is lacking for some growing regions, it’s happening more often for others, resulting in more harvesting and picking cycles, which is great. However, this means higher labor costs than usual, making it harder on farmers.

The hotter temperatures have caused plants to lose several growing days in their usual harvest cycle. This is because heat can disturb a plant’s metabolism, driving stress in the plant and possibly reducing its photosynthetic efficiency. While hotter regions have caused harm to some growing regions, it has opened up new areas where coffee can be grown. With the increased temperatures, coffee can now grow at higher altitudes. Twenty years ago, coffee couldn’t grow in altitudes above 6,000 feet, but now, some of the best coffees are coming from these regions. However, the majority of coffee plantations are below 6,000 feet and are being impacted by the hotter temperatures. The main effects of climate change have been hotter temperatures and lower moisture, causing plants and cherries to not only be unable to fully flourish and bloom but die while developing. 

Climate change is a reason for the rapid spread of leaf rust, a parasite that feeds off the leaves of the Arabia plant, and steals their food, causing the leaves to spot until they fall off and the plant dies. In the 1800s, this disease killed off most of the world’s coffee supply, and in 2012, another horrific outbreak resulted in over three billion dollars in damages.  Coffee rust can be controlled and contained by applying fungicides during wet seasons. However, it’s only at higher altitudes and cooler temperatures that the disease struggles to reproduce and spread. This is still a very real problem that farmers face.

In addition to these environmental risks, the commodity market continues to pay coffee farmers at or below their production costs. When purchasing conventionally traded coffee (think large commodity companies), very little of what you pay actually makes it back to the people that did the truly hard work of producing it.

“The coffee market is in crisis with prices below the production costs. We need to do our part to make sure that coffee farmers actually want to continue to grow coffee. They need to make a living wage so they can continue to produce the high-quality product we’ve come to rely on”

Haden Polseno-Hensley, Co-Owner of Red Rooster Coffee in Floyd, VA.

How to Help Save Coffee

There isn’t a quick fix to save the world’s coffee supply. It will take time and money to help farmers implement farm management practices based on agrobiodiversity and the ecosystem. These types of resources aren’t available to all but are necessary for the survival of the Arabica plant. So what can we do to help? Try our best! Reduce, reuse, recycle. Shop local. Think Global. Seek coffee that aims to create a more sustainable future for everyone involved. Seek coffee that checks the following three boxes.

  1. Environmentally sustainable- coffee is grown in a way that minimizes negative impacts on the environment (reducing water usage, protecting wildlife)
  2. Socially sustainable- coffee promotes fair labor practices, supports communities, and provides a decent standard of living for all involved.
  3. Economically sustainable- coffee that ensures long-term profitability for everyone involved in the supply chain, especially farmers, allowing them to invest in their cause and community.
tony's fair trade coffee

Mistobox partners with specialty coffee roasters who are obsessed with sourcing and roasting ridiculously good coffee while paying fair wages to producers for the highest quality beans.