Caffeine is the world’s favorite drug, and half the world’s coffee-growing land is at risk from climate change, according to a major article in a recent edition of The Economist (January 27th – February 2nd 2024). This is potentially a worse crisis than the prospect of the next world war for most of us!!

      Coffee is grown in over 70 countries, and more than 2 billion cups are drunk every day. Coffee production helps to support the livelihoods of an estimated 125 million people.

      A report from an agricultural engineer, Cássia Gabriele Dias, at the Federal University of Brazil, the world’s largest coffee grower, states that between 35% and 75% of the coffee-growing land in Brazil will be unusable by the end of the century. (Fortunately, and selfishly, I won’t have to worry about that!). Another report, published in 2015, projected that between 43% and 58% of the world’s coffee-producing land will be unusable by 2050. (Highly unlikely that I will have to worry about that either!!). As the planet heats, some land that is currently too cold for coffee production will be able to support it, but at nowhere near the acreage needed to replace that which will be lost.

      Coffee, at least the most popular variety, Coffea arabica, is a fussy plant. Its best yields come from areas where the temperature ranges from 18 degrees C to 23 degrees C, all year round. The problem is that the temperature in these traditional growing areas is already fast approaching that upper limit.

      According to The Economist article, there are several possible solutions to this dilemma, apart from rapidly addressing climate change, which is almost certainly impossible.

      The first is to move the production to higher elevations. Unfortunately, that means lower acreage, environmental impact issues, more fertilizer use because of poorer soils, and time – it takes more than five years for new plantations to produce a good harvest, aside from the time to develop those new sites.

      The second possibility is to grow coffee under the cover of trees, which is how it used to be grown before volume demands required that the space the trees took up be used for coffee. This is possible but it takes time to grow trees and that would reduce the coffee-growing acreage. There are other benefits to the idea of using tree cover but, on balance, the positives and negatives seem to balance out.

      The most promising possibilities are cross-breeding and genetic engineering. Science is aware of approximately 130 species of coffee, but most have been forgotten, or ignored, as world demand has focused the attention of producers on Coffea arabica.

      A botanist at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, outside London, Aaron Davis, has been looking into these other species. He found a report by a Scottish botanist, George Don, written in 1834, about a species of coffee growing wild in Sierra Leone that Don said tasted better than Coffea arabica. Davis went to Sierra Leone and found that coffee still growing wild. He is currently running experiments to cross-breed it, Coffea affinis, with Coffea Arabica. He is also investigating the possibility of cultivating on its own since it grows wild in a high-temperture tropical environment. The newly re-discovered species is also more resistant to some of the diseases that affect coffee beans, like “coffee wilt” and “coffee rust”.

      The hope is that a combination of all of these possible steps to protect the world’s coffee supply will buy enough time to develop new species that can accommodate climate change and disease, while tasting as good, if not better, than Coffea Arabica.

      As a final commentary, it’s good to know that some people are anticipating climate change issues with enough time to hopefully mitigate the consequences of that change. Coffee may be a small contribution to that effort, but, as the world’s favorite drug, it is important!

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