Will Climate Change Lead to Worse Coffee at Higher Prices?

Slowly but surely the world is getting warmer. This is also causing both increased and decreased rainfall in many areas of the world. Over the coming decades we can expect to see climate change lead to worse coffee at higher prices. This is because the effects of a more severe climate will likely be greater for arabica coffee and somewhat less for the hardier but more bitter robusta variety. The effects of climate on the three greatest coffee producing regions of the world will vary a bit based on the types of coffee produced, the specific regional topography, and the ability of local coffee growers to adapt to climate changes.

Climate Change and Coffee in Vietnam

Bloomberg published an article about how climate change is making your coffee more bitter and expensive. They focused on Vietnam and Robusta coffee production. One of the basic assumptions about climate change and coffee is that robusta, being a hardier variety than arabica, will be affected less by higher temperatures and resulting issues like more coffee leaf rust and other plant diseases. Thus, the rationale is that we will be drinking more of the bitter, caffeine rich robusta and less of the milder arabica. And, with both types of coffee suffering from climate change, prices of each will go up.

Vietnam has produced coffee since the mid-19th century when French planters brought the crop to what was then French Indochina. It was only after Vietnamese independence in the1970s that, with the help of the World Bank, Vietnam became a major coffee producer, rivaling Brazil for the lead in total coffee production. Virtually all of Vietnam’s crop is robusta.

The Bloomberg article looks in depth at coffee production in Vietnam and shows us that robusta is not immune from the effects of higher temperatures and dramatic variations in rainfall from droughts to torrential rains. When there is a drought coffee farmers need to drill deeper for water for irrigation and when there are torrential rains coffee production is reduced as well. Farmers are having to reduce their reliance on coffee as a cash crop. While planting a mixture of crops helps Vietnamese farmers financially, it is reducing production of robusta coffee by the world’s biggest producer of this variety.

Climate Change and Coffee in Brazil

Brazil has long been the dominant producer of coffee in the whole world. It produces a mixture of arabica and robusta coffee and today usually out produces Vietnam for total coffee production and commonly loses out to Colombia in just arabica production. The same issues that Vietnam faces apply to Brazil’s robusta crop. These climate risks apply with greater force to Brazil’s production of arabica coffee. Specific issues include not only temperature and variable rainfall but higher incidence of coffee leaf rust, coffee berry borer, and leaf miner infestations. As much as 60% of cropland suitable for coffee in the southeast of Brazil will likely be lost in the coming decades. In Brazil we can expect a reduction in both arabica and robusta production and, thus, higher prices. To the extent that arabica experiences greater production losses, we can expect to see more bitterness in our cups of Java.

Climate Change and Coffee in Colombia

Colombia is the third leading producer of coffee in the world and commonly the biggest producer of arabica with Brazil as its chief rival. The bulk of Colombian arabica coffee production takes place in the western region of the Andes at altitudes ranging from 3,000 to higher than 8,000 feet. Because of its susceptibility to leaf rust, the older arabica variety is only grown at the highest altitudes. As temperatures increase one can expect to see this coffee grown at higher altitudes and on diminished crop land. Lower altitudes are planted with leaf rust resistant strains developed by Cenicafe, the research arm of the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia).

The same issues that affect Brazil and its arabica crop apply to Colombia as well. Colombia has the advantage of extremely high altitudes for growing coffee but the higher one goes the less room there is to grow coffee. A decided advantage that Colombia has is its ability to develop leaf rust resistant strains of coffee that retain the original arabica flavor and aroma but mimic some of robusta’s hardiness. Nevertheless, we can expect Colombia to experience some of the same falloff in arabica production over the coming decades which will lead to all of us drinking coffee that is more expensive and all too commonly mixed with robusta and more bitter.

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