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  • Writer's pictureHallie Shoffner

Caffeine Withdrawal: Climate Change and Coffee

Max's first intelligible word was tractor. His second - coffee. Most weekend mornings include a mommy-baby muffin/coffee run. On weekday mornings, a coffee cup is an extension of my hand - at my desk, in the field, in the warehouse...

Climate change threatens coffee farming more than it does my own crop. Global warming and extreme weather caused by emissions-driven climate change will REDUCE all coffee farmland by HALF in the next three decades.

It's a frightening concept considering the millions of households that depend on the crop for their livelihoods and the billion (yes, billion) more who depend on it to wake up in the morning.

First, a few facts about coffee farming.

  • Coffee is grown on trees or shrubs. Coffee beans are, in fact, the seeds of the coffee tree cherries. Imagine a cherry pit - the equivalent is a coffee bean. The coffee cherries are picked at a ripe, red color. The fruit flesh is removed. The beans are fermented in water before a good washing and drying. Here are some lovely photos of the process done by hand.

  • Coffee is grown in more than 50 countries around the world and each region boasts its own unique flavor depending on the growing conditions and processing methods.

  • 80% of the world's coffee is grown on small farms, about 2.5-5 acres in size. Compare that with a small US farm size of 230 acres.

  • In most countries, coffee is picked by hand in a very labor-intensive process.

  • 125 million people worldwide depend on coffee production to support themselves.

What can we expect in the upcoming "Great Caffeine Withdrawl"?

Let's say this again - we will lose HALF of all coffee farming land in just three decades.

Climate change is impacting all crops and ag systems around the world, but because its trees are so sensitive to variations in temperature and precipitation, coffee is one of the most at-risk. The increases in global temperatures and extreme weather conditions like droughts, torrential rains, heat waves, and cold snaps, will damage coffee trees and decrease the number of coffee beans produced.

The consequences?

Coffee will be more expensive - much more.

A lower supply of coffee beans will drive up global prices - this is the amount of money, say, Starbucks will pay for the international crop.

If costs remain high enough, roasters will have to consider raising the price of a cup of coffee, even at the risk of upsetting customers. Big brands like Starbucks will be able to stabilize prices longer, but the small companies and independent coffeehouses will not.

We will drink less coffee.

Less coffee means fewer coffee drinkers. Wealthier countries like the United States will have access to a larger portion of the limited coffee supply. However, enough of a price increase means, eventually, the 150 million daily US coffee drinkers will have to cut back.

A lot of people will lose their jobs and worse.

There are about 100 million coffee farmers worldwide AND tens of millions of people who work the coffee "system" - transportation, packaging, distribution, selling, and brewing. Latin America - Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, Peru, and Mexico - have the largest production share followed by Vietnam, Indonesia, Ethiopia, India, and Uganda. It is not difficult to imagine what a serious reduction in coffee will mean for these workers and these economies.

Coffee could taste bad!

On top of all this, coffee could taste bad! Good coffee grows on tropical mountainsides with plenty of shade and stable climates. When temperatures rise in these regions, the plants yield poorly and lose their aromatic compounds. Our beautiful flavor profiles - vibrancy, bittersweet, fruity, clean, floral, citrusy...we will lose that.

Save coffee.

Coffee is our morning routine and an important part of our social fabric. Most of us wake up and turn on our coffee maker. We like to join friends for coffee or sit at a coffee shop to read emails or a book. We chat with coworkers with cups in hand. Us farmers work in the shop or drive around one-handed for about an hour each morning, a travel mug glued to our fingers.

But there is a version of the future that eliminates coffee from our daily lives - the taste, the ritual, the comfort. It is not a future I want to live in.

And we don't have to. Climate activism starts with conversations and recognition of the true dangers posed to us and our food supply. I recently had this coffee conversation with some dear family members and they were surprised to learn of the dire situation. Awareness is where it begins. Spread it.

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