Every day, hundreds of millions of people wake up and immediately suffocate. Of course, their drug of choice is caffeine, which means that this is a socially acceptable behavior that is even encouraged by workplaces, which often provide it for free. Caffeine consumption is so widespread, most people don’t even consider it a drug, even though it is a substance that profoundly affects mood, digestion, sleep, and many other biological processes. It can even be hard to quit, triggering cravings and headaches for people with severe addictions. (At least coffee has been associated with many health benefits.)
Some estimates warn that 50% of the land used to grow coffee will be unproductive by 2050.
We are so used to having caffeine as part of our waking lives that it is almost impossible to imagine a society that is not under the influence of coffee, tea and energy drinks. Like fish that don’t notice water, many people take their favorite stimulant for granted. But what if all of this were to disappear one day? What if everyone’s morning cup of joe suddenly became a cup of… Huh? (Sorry.)
Surprisingly, it’s a real possibility. As climate change worsens, threats to coffee plants are increasing, meaning that one day many coffee species may disappear from the wild. Drought, floods, heat waves and the spread of pathogens such as fungi and viruses are already making it more difficult to grow coffee in some regions. If this trend continues, one of people’s favorite substances could become rare and extremely expensive, with some estimates warning that 50% of the land used to grow coffee will be unproductive by 2050.
Since the mid-1990s, Aaron Davis, botanist and senior research leader at Kew Gardens in London, has traveled the world studying coffee plants. Last year, Davis co-authored a study describing six new species of coffee plants native to Madagascar, several of which are already listed as critically endangered. Davis also co-authored a 2019 review in Science Advances that examined the health of coffee species worldwide and found that 60 percent are threatened with extinction, with insufficient data on another 11 percent.
But the damaging effects of global warming on coffee farming are already being felt globally, with multi-generational coffee farmers watching their crops struggle in a changing climate.
“Sometimes it’s been almost scary listening to what farmers are telling me about climate change, even though they don’t have access to climate data or records,” Davis told Salon. “They haven’t seen the graphs, they haven’t seen the IPCC reports. But what they’re saying is very consistent with what happened and what’s happening,” both in climate models and in the recorded data.
The effects of climate change on coffee are not always direct. In fact, to some extent, warmer temperatures can benefit coffee plants, Davis says. But the right regions where coffee grows best are starting to change, which could make coffee a rarer and more expensive commodity.
“Coffee has already moved,” says Davis. “It’s not really the temperature itself. It’s the temperature in combination with a lot of other things, especially rainfall, precipitation, seasonality, extreme weather events, changing weather patterns. It’s very complicated.”
For example, Davis co-authored a paper published last month in Nature Food that shows this Coffea arabica it is sensitive to vapor pressure deficit (VPD), a previously unexplored variable in coffee. VPD essentially refers to how heat can draw moisture from the soil, forcing plants to draw more water from the soil. Assuming this doesn’t kill the plants, it may give them less energy to produce fruit, which is technically what coffee is. The corresponding increase in VPD with global temperatures could affect the yields of more than 90% of coffee-producing countries.
Cultivated coffee plants will probably always exist in a diminished form, Davis predicts, but in the meantime, wild coffee plants are especially threatened, which could create huge problems in the near future. There are 130 species of coffee known to science, but people actually drink only two: Coffea canephora and arabica coffee, which account for 43 and 57 percent of the global market, respectively. But that wasn’t always the case.
For most of the 19th century, the only species of coffee in circulation was C. arabica. Between 1869 and 1930, Southeast Asia was affected by a fungus called coffee leaf rust (Hemileia vastatrix), which destroys the plant’s ability to photosynthesize. The disease swept through parts of India, the Philippines and Ceylon, the area now known as Sri Lanka, leaving “Arabic graveyards” in its wake.
Some plantations never recovered and switched to tea cultivation. Others began to cultivate another species, C. liberica, which was naturally resistant to rust. However, its defenses declined over time, and it too became susceptible to the fungal pathogen, although its distinct taste also helped to overcome it in the region.
“We have opportunities to broaden the coffee crop portfolio to go from just two species to maybe three, four or five, giving us something that gives us more potential for adaptation in the face of climate change,” says Davis.
In the early 1900s, C. cannabis, known as Robusta, became dominant in the area. It’s just one example of how coffee plant preferences have changed throughout history, and each time, it meant finding tools or alternatives that exist in nature. This practice is called “bioprospecting”. But if, for example, another strange plant disease makes Arabica or Robusta hard to grow, and wild coffee species are rare or extinct, we may not be able to save the industry, as happened with many plants throughout history.
“From time to time, researchers and breeders have gone back into the wild to find plants with specific traits to support the industry, whether it’s disease resistance, pest resistance, etc.,” says Davis. “I think what we need to do is work on these now to prepare for the challenges we’re going to face in the coming decades.”
If coffee were to disappear into the wild, we could make synthetic coffee using some kind of caffeine-soaked substrate or plant material. Lab coffee made using bioreactors full of yeast or bacteria is another avenue being explored. But Davis argues that we should try to domesticate some of the other 128 coffee species before they disappear. Some of these varieties will also have a unique flavor – they may be less acidic or bitter, for example.
“We have opportunities to broaden the coffee crop portfolio to go from just two species to maybe three, four or five, giving us something that gives us more potential for adaptation in the face of climate change,” says Davis. “It’s also a great opportunity, I think, for coffee drinkers to expand their sensory experience of coffee and try something new, exciting, delicious.”
There is also a strong economic incentive to save coffee, which is the world’s most traded agricultural product after crude oil. About 100 million people, including 25 million farmers, are part of this international industry.
Despite how important coffee is to our global economy, not to mention our morning routines, we still have many questions about how these plants thrive in the wild and what they can provide us. So it is more than finding synthetic substitutes, new varieties or moving plantations to higher ground. It’s about keeping a drug industry (nothing wrong with that) that defines something special about being human.
“We really need to focus on carbon neutrality,” warns Davis. “There is a deep psychological issue around the loss of things like coffee, wine or chocolate,” which are also threatened by global warming. “Life gets a little more mundane,” says Davis. “Not everyone is a coffee drinker. But it starts to really wear on the psyche once you start losing that, all those things that make life special.”