How Climate Change is Affecting Coffee

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 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 and aren’t typically noted on coffee bags. 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 need 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 best coffees are typically grown 2,000-6,000 feet above sea level. This is because higher elevations have less oxygen, which slows the development of the cherry. The longer the coffee matures, the more complex sugars and flavors it will have. When coffee bags show the elevation in which the coffee was grown, it’s just indicating how intense and apparent the flavor notes may be. Coffee needs to develop in stable temperatures between 59-75 degrees Fahrenheit and have around 60 inches of rainfall per 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.

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? Buy sustainable coffee and do your part not to contribute to global warming, such as considering your travel and commute method, composting and recycling, buying local, changing your home’s energy source, and more.

New York Times’ Guide to Saving Money and Fighting Climate Change.

What is Sustainable Coffee?

tony's fair trade coffee

Fair Trade is one of several common sustainability certifications coffee farmers can earn when taking care of their workers and the environment. These types of certifications became popular over the past 20 years when consumers began to make it known that they’d prefer to buy from companies that prioritize strong ethical and sustainable practices. Obtaining the Fair Trade stamp and the like means that companies are paying fair wages, not using free or child labor, they are not harming the environment, and not only meeting the bare minimums but making sure businesses are creating a workplace in which people and communities can grow and thrive. Fair Trade runs on the idea that products bought and sold are connected to the livelihood of others. It was recognized early on, at the beginning of coffee production, that coffee farmers weren’t paying fair wages, and the environment in which people were expected to work was run-down and unsafe. The work on a coffee farm is challenging physical labor. Workers can face steep and dangerous altitudes, extreme weather, pesticide exposure, and are subject to dangerous wildlife like spiders and snakes. Pay varies depending on the type of labor, but for some of the lower-paying jobs, like picking cherries, a worker can make as little as $2-$3 a day. 

There have been numerous surveys and audits over the past few years to check how coffee farms are running and if they meet the requirements to obtain sustainability certifications such as Fair Trade. Studies show that it is extremely hard and rare for coffee farmers to meet the bare-minimum requirements. However, there is good news. Working conditions for many farmers and laborers have significantly improved in the last few decades. Many farms focus on providing living wages, equality, inclusivity, and better conditions for building strong communities where people can thrive, raise families, and get an education. We are on the up but still have a long way to go for this to be regulated on all plantations. 

Where To Buy Sustainable Coffee

Mistobox Coffee partners with roasters who are obsessed with sourcing and roasting ridiculously good coffee and paying fair wages to producers for the highest quality beans. Though it’s a hard certification to obtain, all roasters with Mistobox have sustainability in mind. 

Shop all coffee at Mistobox or seek out Fair Trade coffee.