Climate Solutions for the Future of Coffee | Civil Eats

Climate Solutions for the Future of Coffee

In the face of severe climate change, farmers, researchers, and coffee devotees are refocusing on agroforestry and developing hardier varieties and high-tech beanless brews to save our morning cup of Joe.

A farmer harvests coffee beans in a plantation along the Mekong River in Thailand. (Photo credit: Sutiporn Somnam, Getty Images)

A farmer harvests coffee beans in a farm along the Mekong River in Thailand. (Photo credit: Sutiporn Somnam, Getty Images)

There’s not enough coffee in the world. In 2023, the world produced 3 percent less than it consumed. Growing consumer demand in Asia exacerbates the deficit, while climate change affects supply. Coffee is susceptible to heat and drought. It needs predictable conditions to thrive, and conditions now are anything but predictable.

Heat and novel rain patterns harm plants and encourage coffee rust, a devastating fungal disease. Rains may come too early or too late. There may be too much rain or too little. Or all of the above.

Climate models show what farmers are already experiencing on the ground: Climate change and arabica are incompatible, at least where coffee is currently grown.

Climate change causes labor problems and hurts farm owners, too. Lower yields mean less cash flow, contributing to wage stagnation. Underpaid pickers don’t show up, and coffee cherries rot on the ground, wasting the harvest. Heat can also cause coffee to ripen before pickers are available; again, the cherries fall and are wasted. Some harvests last for six months instead of the standard two, and some are shockingly short.

Climate also intersects with infrastructure. Sometimes, the coffee is picked, but heavy rains wash out the roads, and farmers can’t get their product to market. Or harvests are compressed into a two-week period, and the coffee mills can’t handle the tsunami of cherries waiting to be processed.

With increasingly tight margins, farm owners can’t afford the upgrades needed to make their coffee production more water-efficient, and they can’t buy new cultivars that resist coffee rust and heat.

If smallholder farmers are “deciding between ‘feed my family,’ or ‘renovate the farm,’ they’re going to feed their family,” says Maria Cleaveland, a coffee industry expert and board member of the U.S. chapter of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA). Without hope, people leave—and many of them head for the U.S.

A Shift in Coffee Growing Regions

About 70 percent of global coffee is arabica, favored in the U.S. But climate models show what farmers are already experiencing on the ground: Climate change and arabica are incompatible, at least where coffee is currently grown.

Green areas are projected to be favorable to coffee cultivation by 2050, while brown areas will not be.

In this map, green areas are projected to be favorable to coffee cultivation by 2050, while brown areas will not be. (Map source)

Some 50 percent of current coffee-growing land will likely be unsuitable for arabica by 2050. Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, and Indonesia, four of the biggest coffee nations, are on that list. Growers there are looking for ways to delay the tipping point.

On the plus side, locations further from the equator—the U.S. Gulf Coast, China’s Yunnan province, and parts of Uruguay and Argentina—will likely be coffee-friendly by 2050. Enabled by increasingly favorable weather in Yunnan, coffee production there has soared by nearly 500 percent since 2006.

Coffee plants usually take three to four years to produce their first yield, making the crop a gamble at startup, but rising global demand may provide the incentive. In fact, coffee is increasingly grown in California, says Cleaveland.

Coffee roasters and retailers strategically adjust their sourcing to regional conditions. “We definitely think a lot about that,” says Andi Trindle Mersch, vice president of coffee operations and sustainability at Philz Coffee. “I consider this to be our job as coffee buyers now.” Trindle Mersch says that Philz plans 10 to 15 years ahead in sourcing and is strongly invested in Brazil. Beyond 15 years? “We’re going to keep tasting and trying.”

Could the Answer Come From Trees?

“Working in the field at very high temperatures has been exhausting,” says Miriam Monteiro de Aguiar of Brazil’s Cachoeira Farm, which has produced certified organic coffee since 1994. The blazing heat also harms the fragile coffee plants, driving Monteiro de Aguiar back to coffee’s agroforestry roots.

Even considering agroforestry, growing coffee in the shade, is unusual in Brazil. Most farms there still use open-field agriculture—but this approach may not work for much longer in the new climate reality.

Globally, many coffee farmers are moving uphill into forested areas to escape the heat. Coffee was once grown exclusively in the forest, shaded by native trees.

“We have been experimenting with shade-grown coffees,” Monteiro de Aguiar says. “More recently, we’ve been fascinated by and experimenting with syntropic agriculture.”

Syntropic agroforestry involves carefully trimming the tree canopy, balancing sun and shade to prevent fungal diseases. As they prune, workers pile leaves and branches on the ground. The biomass retains water and decomposes, enriching the soil. Using fruit trees for shade improves food security for the producers, too.

Although these regenerative models are “vigorous,” as Monteiro de Aguiar says, they are still rare. “Many producers, scientists, and researchers believe and invest more in the scientific development of drought-resistant varieties,” she notes.

Globally, many coffee farmers are moving uphill into forested areas to escape the heat. Coffee was once grown exclusively in the forest, shaded by native trees. Agroforestry reduces the ambient temperature, enriches the soil, and controls evaporation so the plants don’t dry out. It also protects coffee blossoms against frost.

But shade-grown coffee has its own problems. Perhaps most damningly, it increases the incidence and severity of coffee rust by 22 percent, although new techniques like syntropic agroforestry could help. Harvesting shade-grown coffee can be costly and difficult, as workers must contend with roots, branches, machetes, ants, and snakes while reaching for coffee cherries.

Attracted by the higher yields of sun-grown coffee, some conventional farmers clear-cut the hills, a practice that robs the coffee of shade and the land of biodiversity. One study found that arabica’s move into forested areas could result in the loss of 35 percent of threatened vertebrate species, including mammals, birds, and amphibians, due to clear-cutting.

Policy changes could offer new hope for agroforestry. Starting in late 2024, the E.U. will prohibit coffee imports from countries with new deforestation. “It’s in the air; everybody wants to know how this will affect their relationship with their buyers,” says Blanca Castro of Guatemala, executive director of the IWCA.

Some national governments have set policies to encourage shade-grown coffee. This includes Mexico, says Santiago José Arguello Campos, Coordinador General de Agricultura of Mexico. Agroforestry is “very important to preserve biodiversity,” he says. The agriculture department backs up this recommendation with technical assistance. That help is working: 96 percent of the coffee grown in Mexico is now shade-grown. Mexico has nearly 1.5 million acres of shade-grown coffee, much of it bordering protected natural areas.

Coffee worldwide is increasingly grown alongside other crops, such as avocados, plantains, cacao, sugarcane, nuts, citrus, and spices. Castro says this intercropping offers shade for coffee plants and financial stability for farmers.

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Some Mexican producers grow coffee under banana trees, for example. The fruit is for farmers to consume themselves, says Arguello Campos, and farmers sell the large banana leaves to the U.S. food market for tamale wraps. This practice can generate up to 30 percent of their total income.

In places that are increasingly too hot or dry to grow coffee, such crops may someday support former coffee producers, but for now, they supplement coffee revenues.

Buying Time

Daniele Giovannucci, a former coffee consultant for the World Bank and founder of the Committee on Sustainability Assessment, sees coffee’s climate adaptation as splitting into two paths. One is specialty coffees, such as shade-grown gourmet varieties. The other, which is easier to scale, is varietals suited to new climate conditions.

A coffee plant wilts in the sun on a plantation near Manizales, Colombia. (Photo courtesy of the author)

A coffee plant wilts in the sun on a plantation near Manizales, Colombia. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Hardier coffee plants could buy time in the coming decades. One possibility is robusta, popular in Europe for espresso and more heat-resistant than arabica. A 2022 study predicted that about 83 percent of the world’s future coffee-growing areas would support robusta, but only 17 percent would support arabica.

Arabica’s ideal temperature range is 64-73 degrees Fahrenheit, with 47 inches of rainfall annually. By contrast, robusta thrives (in some places) at 72-86 degrees Fahrenheit. Notably, a study of robusta’s ideal temperature in Southeast Asia found it to be less heat-tolerant there. Robusta also requires more rainfall, at least 69 inches annually.

Robusta has vastly greater genetic diversity than arabica; most of its thousands of varieties have yet to be explored.

David Pohl, founder of Pohl Coffee Consulting and a certified coffee quality rater, says robusta is starting to be recognized as a specialty coffee. To bring out its best flavors, robusta must be processed, roasted, and brewed differently from arabica. Robusta prepared like arabica would not be considered a fine coffee.

Despite robusta’s potential climate advantages, Big Coffee has yet to embrace it fully. Robusta didn’t get its own quality standards until 2010. Pohl was one of the first “R-raters,” experts trained by the Coffee Quality Institute in robusta standards. Before 2010, robusta was judged by the same standards as arabica, which is rated on its “bright notes” and is rewarded for acidity. Robusta is less acidic; a fine robusta is balanced between sweet and salty, for example.

Robusta has vastly greater genetic diversity than arabica; most of its thousands of varieties have yet to be explored. The best robustas Pohl has tasted are from Africa. “They just have more to work with. And so, their coffees tend to be really, really good, whether or not they’re known to the world,” says Pohl.

Hybrid coffee plants are another possible climate solution—for farms that can get them. One hybrid, Centroamericano, introduced in 2010, scores well in “cupping” or taste ratings. It is high-yielding and rust-resistant and thrives in the shade at high altitudes. However, “only a handful” of hybrids “have become commercially available to farmers in the last 15 years, and only in select countries,” according to the nonprofit World Coffee Research.

World Coffee Research has operated a non-GMO breeding program to develop more climate-resistant coffee varieties for the past two years. They use a vast dataset to determine future conditions by country and aim for plants that will thrive in specific regions.

Trindle Mersch says Philz Coffee would be open to robustas or hybrids if the right flavor profiles came along. So far, however, they haven’t tasted one that works for their blends. She notes that Philz supports World Coffee Research. “We’re definitely believers in using science to create quality hybrids and breeds we can work with,” she says.

In 2012, coffee rust hit Mexico and Central America hard, depressing yields through 2015. Mexico’s agriculture department distributed rust-resistant cultivars such as Oro Azteca, Marsellesa, and Costa Rica 95, along with technical assistance on Fair Trade and organic certification. The project also encouraged shade-planting.

Arguello Campos says the three-year project put 200 million plants a year directly into the hands of farmers. The organizers released them in waves, allowing the original plants to yield what they could while the new ones matured.

“The goal was to increase density and resilience,” says Arguello Campos. The Mexican government invested the equivalent of $70 million per year in the project, supplemented by corporate investments and farm labor, in what Arguello Campos describes as a public-private-social venture.

Beanless Coffee

What if these options can’t hold back the impact of climate change? Scientists are exploring sustainable coffee alternatives in laboratories around the world.

A Seattle startup, Atomo Coffee, says it has cracked coffee’s flavor code—without coffee beans. Atomo extracts compounds from ingredients such as ramón seeds, which the ancient Mayans used to make a hot beverage with notes of chocolate and dark-roasted coffee. Atomo also uses date pits that might otherwise end up in landfills; for millennia, date pits have been used to make a coffee-like beverage in the Middle East. The company uses a mass spectrometer to compare its product to coffee at the molecular level.

Atomo founder Andy Kleitsch says the company started its global hunt by analyzing these traditional ingredients and wartime substitutes like chicory and acorns.

“What we found is that these substitutes don’t taste like coffee. And we don’t think consumers are ready to give up conventional coffee to drink a substitute. For us to be successful, we had to create a product that is an exact replica of coffee,” says Kleitsch.

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Large coffee companies are concerned about the looming crisis, he says. “They’re all looking to address supply chain problems and quality issues.” Atomo, whose factory starts production in spring 2024, plans to introduce its product as a sideline in existing coffee shops.

Atomo coffee being brewed. (Photo courtesy of Atomo)

Atomo coffee being brewed. (Photo courtesy of Atomo)

In San Francisco, Minus Coffee uses an upcycled approach similar to Atomo’s but with different ingredients, like chicory, millet, and carob. Founder Maricel Saenz, who grew up in Costa Rica, says Minus distributes canned cold brews to large food-service companies. The company donates 1 percent of its profits to a group called Doselva, which equips coffee farmers for intercropping.

And yes, both companies add caffeine—it’s extracted from tea.

Will consumers accept beanless coffee? Kleitsch and Saenz say their products fare well in blind taste tests. Atomo’s backers think there’s a market; they include Horizons Ventures, an early funder of Impossible Foods, and S2G Ventures, an early funder of Beyond Meat.

Trindle Mersch says these alternatives are “just a different product,” like carob versus chocolate. And, she says, “I never moved away from chocolate.”

Beanless coffee can also come from coffee plants.

A research team in Finland released a proof-of-concept study on lab-cultured coffee in late 2023 in hopes that food scientists would find it useful. They used a bioreactor—a container of liquid growth medium—to grow coffee from plant cells, like brewing beer, but without the fermentation.

“The benefit of this technology is that it’s not location-specific; you can run it wherever you want,” says Heiko Rischer, principal scientist and head of plant biotechnology at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. He notes that the closed system gives growers control over water purity and nutrients.

VTT's Heiko Rischer with coffee plants. (Photo credit: Vesa Kippola, VTT)

VTT’s Heiko Rischer with coffee plants. (Photo credit: Vesa Kippola, VTT)

Cultured coffee grows fast, in about 10 days, and inexpensively in the lab, and it’s real coffee. It doesn’t look like a coffee bean but is easy to harvest because it’s essentially pre-ground. When the floating mat of coffee cells is drained and dried, it yields a fine powder, ready to roast. Of course, roasting powdered coffee requires a different approach than roasting whole beans, a challenge for this emerging product.

But is lab-cultured coffee good coffee? The research group readily admits that the flavor profile needs some tweaking. Its primary flavor is a smoky burned-sugar aroma with “appropriate bitterness.” Cultured coffee’s flavor can be refined with experimentation, says Sarah O’Connor, a molecular biologist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. For example, changing the media in which cells are grown can have a dramatic effect.

David Pohl thinks it’s too soon to take coffee production into the lab. In a doomsday scenario, with farmed coffee no longer viable, he’d be happy to have alternatives. But for right now, “it’s not necessary,” he says. “You have millions of coffee farmers around the world looking for viable ways to produce coffee, and you’ve got a lot of scientists trying to do the right thing.” He adds, “We do have hope for the future.”

This article was updated with Blanca Castro’s home country of Guatemala.

Anne Connor is a Vermont-based freelance writer with a master’s in science writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her work is solution-focused stories about climate, the environment, and sustainable food systems, and has appeared in Ensia, Modern Farmer, Vox, Undark, and more. Read more >

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  1. Loui S.
    This is a great article. I appreciate getting a snapshot of coffee growing areas far and wide, and what the growers are facing with climate and weather variations over the globe, in our changing times. Nice also to learn more about alternative beverages being developed; these business ventures are more prevalent than I realized. Thank you for infusing current challenges with an eye towards the possible solutions that combine science and creativity.
    This is my first Civil Eats article. If this quality of writing is the norm, I'm all in.
  2. Pam slocum
    Great writing and research…and fascinating subject! Congratulations, Anne.

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