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Climate Change Could Have Catastrophic Effects on Coffee, Researchers Say

Rising temperatures could affect the land coffee grows on and the bees that pollinates the plants. Result: No coffee for you.

Coffee cup with beans

This is not the kind of jolt coffee drinkers want. Coffee farmers either, for that matter. But a team of researchers have just published a study that contends climate change may reduce the land in which coffee can grow in Latin America by 88 percent by 2050.

The problem, the researchers write in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is two-fold. First, changes in temperature, rainfall, and extreme weather events will reduce production. But those factors’ effects on bee populations in coffee-growing areas will only exacerbate the problem.

“This is the first study to show how both will likely change under global warming—in ways that will hit coffee producers hard,” says Taylor Ricketts, director of the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Environment and study co-author.

We dug into the study to understand the climate change’s effects on coffee and the possible solutions the researchers offer.

How Climate Change Decreases the Land on Which Coffee May Be Grown

When you’re enjoying your espresso, you’re likely drinking coffee made from the Arabica bean as opposed to Robusta. Robusta beans can grow at lower elevations, are more heat resistant, and are less susceptible to insect infestations. The catch is that they can have a harsh taste when roasted, so they’re usually deployed in cheaper coffees.

Arabica beans are more finicky to cultivate, but taste a lot better, thus they dominate the premium market. They grow best in cooler air, found at higher altitudes. But rising temperatures are reducing the amount of land around Latin America that simultaneously has the right altitude and the right temperature for Arabica.

And while rising temps will create new places suitable for Arabica growth, the study’s co-author Taylor Rickets cautions against that optimism. “We’re going to lose a lot and not gain too much,” Ricketts told NPR.

Why Native Bee Populations Matter

When there is a diverse array of bees pollinating coffee plantations, it greatly increases the yield of those plants, meaning more premium coffee produced per square foot. Bees will only venture so far from the forests where they nest, so warming temperatures pushing growing regions higher up mountains and further from forests will decrease the diversity of bees. Also, those rising temps will force certain bees to migrate to cooler climes elsewhere.

Couldn’t we just bring in outside bees to help boost production? Unfortunately, no. “Native bee species are often more effective coffee pollinators than nonnative honey bees,” according to the study. So it’s not just enough to bring in outside bees, conditions must be created where multiple species of bees can thrive along with the region’s flora.

What Can Be Done to Mitigate the Problem

While these changes could be dire for the 25 million farmers around the world growing coffee, the study did offer some solutions to help them out. One of them is a program of preserving forests near coffee plantations in order to protect bee populations. In the places expected to experience warming, the addition of trees around the coffee plants can provide shade to keep the beans cooler. Rotating crops in effected areas could also help with the biodiversity of that land. And in those places where warming temps will make growing coffee easier, helping farmers establish plantations will keep overall yield from dropping as drastically.

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