Is it too hot for coffee?
by Meg Lowman
Coffee is migrating. As it’s getting hotter at lower altitudes, the lower plants are dying off, so it marches the coffee forest up the slopes.
— Dean Cycon, owner of Dean’s Beans Coffee Co.
Coffee, java, morning Joe, black wine, jolt juice, espresso, cappuccino … Whatever the name, coffee is synonymous with the American dream. A cup of coffee has inspired business deals, exam preparation, student all-nighters, real estate transactions, truck-driving, dating, and diplomacy. It represents a daily ritual for millions of Americans and billions of people worldwide. Imagine a world without coffee.
Recently in Ethiopia, engaged in research on forest conservation and mentoring women in science, I visited the town of Jimma, birthplace of coffee. The locals explain that many hundreds of years ago, shepherds observed their goats getting frisky after munching on green berries. In need of some extra energy to endure the rigors of goat-herding on extreme terrain, they ground the berries into their tea. Due to their astute powers of observation, Ethiopian goat-herders became the world’s first coffee-drinkers.
Since that simple origin, coffee has become the world’s most important drink. And although coffee is now grown in many other locations since that fateful goat-herding discovery, Ethiopian coffee beans are usually considered the finest.
But several biological challenges threaten to shrink the world’s coffee supply. Almost all agricultural products that humans plant in monocultures are ultimately attacked by insect pests, including potatoes, pine lumber, corn, tobacco and cotton, to name but a few. Coffee is no exception.
The coffee berry borer (affectionately called “la broca” in Latin America, translated as “the drill”) did not exist in Ethiopia 50 years ago, but now has significantly threatened the harvest in this country representing coffee’s origin. The beetle has gone global, and now thrives in almost every country of the world that grows coffee.
In addition to threats from creatures that munch directly on the berries, coffee crops are also declining from warming climates. Research has shown that for every 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit temperature increase, the coffee borer is 8.5 percent more infectious. In other words, the invasive beetles thrive in warmer conditions.
Equally damaging is the fact that the coffee plants do not thrive as temperatures increase; for that same increment of warming, Colombian coffee growers must shift their plantations 550 feet up the hillsides to find cooler temperatures.
The coffee-growing districts of Ethiopia have experienced an increase of approximately 6 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1950s, forcing farmers to either buy land up the hillside, or switch to more heat-tolerant crops.
Another solution to warming temperatures for some coffee farmers is shade-grown coffee. By planting in the understory of original forests, the coffee plants remain several degrees cooler than in the open sunlight. However, many regions have already clear-cut their forests, so this option is not viable.
From an economically sustainable perspective, coffee drinkers should always request shade-grown coffee. Although it costs a few cents more per cup due to its slower growth in the shade, it is more sustainable for the environment, tastes better, and is less susceptible to outbreaks of coffee borers when the plants are grown amid diverse forest canopy trees.
So, is the American economy, driven by the proverbial coffee-drinking business deal, at risk? Either we find another popular liquid to stimulate our economic activities, or we seek solutions to the coffee borer and the warming trends that currently threaten our favorite java.