Coffee Production Could Plummet Because of Climate Change

In a novel study, researchers evaluated the likely effects of warming temperatures and changing conditions of pollinator species on Latin American coffee production.

In a warmer world, your morning pick-me-up could get a lot harder to come by.

A one-two punch of changes to climate and bee habitat could cut deeply into Latin America’s coffee production, reducing the amount of land suitable for growing the beans from nearly three-quarters to nearly 90 percent in the worst-case scenarios, according to a new report by an international consortium of researchers.

“That has really big implications for the production of this incredibly important crop, the biodiversity of the lands where coffee grows, and the livelihoods of the people who depend on coffee,” Taylor Ricketts, director of the Gund Institute for Environment at the University of Vermont, told Seeker. “It’s a coupling of two changes that are going to add up to the big realized change for coffee.”

Other studies have looked at the implications of climate change for coffee production. But this is the first to look at the potential effects of both higher temperatures and changing conditions for pollinator species, said Ricketts, a co-author of the study.

Latin America is the world’s largest source of coffee, which thrives at high altitudes in the tropics. Under two scenarios for planet-warming carbon emissions —  a “business-as-usual” case and one with moderate emissions cuts — there’s likely to be a steep net loss of the areas suitable for growing the crop by 2050, the researchers found.

The variety of bee species living in the belt from Brazil to southern Mexico are likely to decline sharply under those conditions. Coffee plants may shift their range to higher elevations to compensate for warmer temperatures, but there’s less land available at those altitudes.

The findings were published today in the US-based research journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study was led by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and included participants from Peru, Costa Rica, France, and the United States.

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The effects aren’t expected to be uniform. A few parts of the coffee belt, mostly in southern Mexico and Central America, would become more amenable to the plant under these projections, Ricketts said. In those areas, both the suitability of coffee and the diversity of bee species are expected to increase, while in other areas, one or both are likely to go down.

But in general, climate change is likely to make most of the region less hospitable — and that has the potential to cause upheavals in countries where it’s a cash crop. The map the researchers produced could help guide efforts to adapt to those changes, either by moving the crops, finding other livelihoods for farmers, new options for pollination, or new ways to grow the beans.

“Coffee is grown by about 25 million farmers in more than 60 countries all over the world, and probably 100 million people are involved in its production,” Ricketts said. “Most of those people are rural and poor. So it’s a huge factor in the livelihoods and economic development of some really vulnerable people and communities.”

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