From bean to barista: 4 things to know about coffee and climate

© Starbucks

On International Coffee Day, we turn our attention to the topic on everyone’s minds after last week: the climate crisis. Like almost everything we consume, coffee is already suffering the effects of a changing climate.

Yet coffee cultivation is a driver of the very processes that are speeding up the climate breakdown. How to meet growing global demand for coffee while preventing it from fueling deforestation — and while protecting it from the effects of a changing climate? We turned to Conservation International’s Bambi Semroc to explain.

1.) Climate change could jeopardize our ability to grow coffee

Research shows that the effects of climate change have the potential to cut the world’s coffee-growing regions in half — which is why many coffee farmers are looking to higher ground.

“Some coffee — particularly the arabica crop — requires certain conditions to grow, which are trending toward higher and higher altitudes due to the changing climate,” explained Semroc. “Those higher altitudes are usually where we have the last intact remaining forest areas, which some farmers are destroying to plant more coffee crops.”

To tackle this growing issue, Conservation International launched the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, a network that urges its 136 partners — including Starbucks, Walmart, McDonald’s and Dunkin’— to commit to sustaining the world’s coffee. Sustainable coffee is grown in a way that conserves nature and provides better livelihoods for the people who grow and process it.

Climate change can cultivate ideal conditions for pests and diseases that target coffee crops all over the world, already ravaging farms from Mexico to Indonesia. This bleak future can be prevented only if coffee companies also commit to ending one of the main drivers of climate change: deforestation.

2.) Deforestation is a risk to the coffee sector

Coffee is grown in tropical ecosystems, which are home to some of the greatest stores of forests and biodiversity in the world. The demand for coffee is growing by 2 percent each year and it is estimated that global production needs to triple by 2050 to meet market demands, which could require an additional 30 million hectares (more than 74 million acres) of land if we are not able to enhance production on existing farms. Otherwise coffee would have to expand into surrounding forests, encroaching deeper into wildlife habitats and decimating the trees that are critical to stopping climate change. A recent UN climate report warned that unsustainable agriculture is one of the top causes of deforestation.

To ensure coffee works toward conservation, the Sustainable Coffee Challenge is pushing its partners to promote coffee farm renovation. Almost a quarter of the commitments from coffee partners are dedicated to conserving nature, which can be accomplished through reducing deforestation and supporting forest restoration efforts. In partnership with the Walmart Foundation, Conservation International scientists are mapping areas at the highest risk from deforestation to determine the best regions to target these rehabilitation efforts.

“Our goal is to essentially freeze deforestation in the coffee sector by restoring and rehabilitating existing coffee farms,” said Semroc. “This will increase productivity so that farmers don’t need to go deeper into the forests.”

3.) Coffee farmers’ livelihoods are at risk

More than 120 million people depend on coffee for their livelihoods, primarily those who farm the caffeinated crop. Today coffee trade prices have hit a 10-year low that is below its cost of production in many countries, putting farmers’ livelihoods at stake as they are not able to invest in their farms or support their families. Most coffee farming communities are located in developing countries with low average incomes, poor health conditions and even child labor practices. To protect coffee, the industry must first protect those who grow and harvest it.

Coupled with this price crisis, climate breakdown threatens coffee crop supplies and has the potential to diminish coffee farmers’ primary source of income even further.

“You can’t have sustainable coffee if farmers aren’t profitable, it is as simple as that,” said Semroc. “The four focus areas of the sustainable coffee challenge — conserving nature, sustaining supply, strengthening demand and improving livelihoods — act like a compass, and farmers are right in the middle of it.”

4.) You can help save coffee

In celebration of International Coffee Day, Conservation International’s Sustainable Coffee Challenge will promote a campaign to support coffee farmers in landscapes that are threatened by climate change and market instability.

The “Plant Trees. Save Coffee” campaign will help protect the world’s supply of coffee, while ensuring the long-term health of farming communities where the crop has strong social and economic importance. The campaign will target regions in Honduras, Colombia and Peru, providing farmers with climate-resilient coffee trees and coffee-friendly trees — enabling farmers to adapt in places that are particularly vulnerable to climate breakdown.

“By supporting farmer efforts to renovate coffee and restore forest cover on their farms, we are investing in the future of coffee, coffee communities and our planet,” said Semroc.

Bambi Semroc is the Vice President of sustainable markets and strategy for Conservation International’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business. Kiley Price is a staff writer for Conservation International.

Cover image: A coffee tree in Guatemala. (Photo courtesy of Starbucks)

Donate here to the “Plant Trees. Save Coffee” campaign.

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