Why It Would Be Really Hard to Kill Coffee

Hybrid plantlets generated via somatic embryogenesis
Hybrid plantlets generated via somatic embryogenesis

The climate might be changing, but coffee won’t go down without a fight.

National Geographic put addicts on edge last November with its article “The Last Drop?” boldly stating that Arabica coffee plants might be extinct by 2080 due to climate change. The statement is bold because it’s not quite that simple. The article recognizes this complexity, explaining that there are in fact many paths to take to avoid extinction of the species, and it will only become extinct if we do absolutely nothing about it until 2080.

The article came out just days before I attended the Association of Science and Information on Coffee (ASIC) conference in Costa Rica, where over 500 people devoted to solving this very type of problem were gathered. Researchers from Brazil, France, Tanzania, and beyond shared information about everything from hybrid cloning to cross breeding varietals. While climate change was not the focus of the conference, it was on the tip of everyone’s tongues, thanks to the release of the article and a keynote presentation discussing deforestation, coffee, and its role in the global climate system.

US News recently released a similar article by Jason Koebler, one going into a little bit more specifics and citing some important quotes from major players in the coffee industry. US News quotes Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA)’s director Ric Reinhardt as saying, “coffee is the canary in the goldmine for climate change.” This is true in that it is one of the first plants to react to changes in temperature, rainfall, and wind patterns.
Reinhardt further says, “If you can’t think about the long term risk for planetary impacts, think about the short term risk for your coffee. Know that a day without coffee is potentially around the corner.” While all the hype is frustrating to those who have been working on adapting coffee to changing climates for years, it is true that climate change effects on coffee supplies hit home in a way that other broad, vague warnings of rising sea levels, green house gas emissions, and overall increases in temperature just don’t. Those are hard ideas to conceptualize and connect to daily living; thinking that the source of your fuel for the day (and often the night) is being threatened makes climate change real, tangible, and personal.

But Reinhardt is a bit dramatic when he says that a day without coffee could be “just around the corner.” A total species eradication over the next 65 years is hardly “just around the corner,” and it’s quite unlikely that we’ll ever get to that total Arabica species extinction.

Koebler already explains why: there are people like Alvaro Gaitan of Colombia’s Centro de Investigaciones de Café (Cenifcafe)- funded by the National Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers (FNC)- working to develop plague-resistant varieties to respond to the increase in plagues caused by changes in weather patterns. Farmers are in fact planting out these new varieties in all or parts of their farms. They’ve had access to the seeds through “extensionists” with offices in small town centers all over coffee growing regions since 2005. Some farmers might be skeptical, but there are plenty of others, especially young farmers, who are very tuned into the science and development side of coffee and are eager to try new varieties and strategies to make the most of their farm. The farm I’m currently living on in the mountains of Colombia planted Castillo years ago and confirms that it does in fact have a lower instance of roya. But that does nothing to protect it against the invasion of the nasty coffee berry borer, la broca. Nothing is perfect, and coffee is never easy.

Because coffee production has so many variables and is itself such a variable plant, there is still much untapped potential for designing coffee production systems that not only adapt to the realities of climate change but reduce contributions to the problem.

The world’s second largest green coffee trader, Swiss owned ECOM, trading 10 million 60kg bags of coffee last year, is pouring money into its Sustainable Management Services (SMS) division. One of the priorities of SMS is developing hybrid varietals that will perform admirably- in both production capacity and cup quality- in the face of climatic shifts. The main SMS lab in Nicaragua is dolling out hybrid seedlings to farms that sell to ECOM, and paring these new plants with training about how to cultivate them in integrated agroforestry systems that have additional environmental benefits.

Whereas Colombia’s developments are exclusively for the improvement of Colombian coffee (which is less selfish and more logical than it might seem, because every growing region presents unique challenges, and varietals that excel in one location may flounder in another), ECOM’s trading interests- and therefore its crop development work- span the globe. ECOM also partners with research institutions like the French Cirad (Center for International Agricultural Development) for a mostly open flow of information.

Even US universities are devoting departments to gene sequencing coffee.

Another major contributor to the study of coffee genetics is CATIE (Tropical Agriculture Research and Higher Education Center) in Turrialba, Costa Rica. They conduct some of their own studies, but more significantly contribute the genetic material for most of the studies done elsewhere in the world, because they house the world’s largest collection of coffee (both Arabica and Robusta) varietals outside of coffee’s native Ethiopia. This wealth of genetic material is ripe for exploration of varietals with desirable qualities in both production capacity and flavor quality in today’s climatic realities.

Baby hybrid coffee: the result of somatic embryogenesis cloning at CATIE
Baby hybrid coffee: the result of somatic embryogenesis cloning at CATIE

CATIE’s (largely untapped) wealth has been recently demonstrated with the explosion of Panamanian Geisha. The first Geisha plants to be sown in Panama came from CATIE. Their planter sought them out because he knew that Geisha was supposed to be resistant to the coffee leaf rust roya, and in the 60s roya had hit Panama hard, so he went troubleshooting to Costa Rica.

Turns out, about 40 years later a dairy farming family found some Geisha plants on their farm and picked, processed, and tasted them, only to find (arguably) the most delicious tasting coffee on earth. Geisha has some great qualities we didn’t even know about, and someone figured it out by accident. Now, Panama’s mountainous coffee regions are full of Geisha plants. Hardly any (maybe even none?!) have fallen to the recent roya epidemic sweeping the region. They produce delicious coffee, just not a lot of it (which is why they were previously rejected for commercial planting; their production was too low to be bothered with.) But what if there was a way to take the good taste and roya resistance of Geisha and cross it with the heartier production of other varietals? I don’t think there’s anyone doing that; but there could be.

An interesting, informative, and accurate New York Times Green Blog article cites massive “monoculture” coffee plantations as being partly responsible for the speed and strength with which roya was recently able to sweep Latin America. Here in- largely roya free- Colombia, most farmers have a few lots of resistant Castillo, itself a mixed bag of genetics, and less resistant Variedad Colombia and a few lots of something else. This genetic variation didn’t save everyone from last year’s La Niña, but has helped Colombia evade the worst clutches of roya. But the cafetales here do span the mountainsides largely uninterrupted for miles and miles. What if people were to plant hillsides with one lot of Caturra, one lot of Catuai, one lot of Variedad Colombia, one lot of F1 Hybrids, and one lot of Castillo- all grown under agroforestry systems and interspersed with lots of corn, beans, and even more bananas? I don’t think there’s anyone doing that, but there could be.

Some tiny farmers with agroforests also saw roya on their farms, so no rationale or solution is all-encompassing. There are enough varietals of good tasting coffee that can be grown in conjunction with other crops and plants and trees that coffee researchers and growers are no where near out of options to try and systems to test.

The thought that coffee might be disappearing is more of a way to conceptualize the impacts and effects of the realities of climate change than it is a direct forecast. There are enough people looking far enough ahead to make sure that doesn’t happen. But when Koebler quotes Tim Schilling, executive director of the infant World Coffee Research Center, founded precisely to take preemptive action in ensuring the future viability of the industry for producers as well as vendors, in saying that, “It’s possible that instead of sourcing coffee from Guatemala, you’ll be doing it from Texas or the south of France,” he’s right.

The more troubling thought is not that there won’t be tasty coffee to drink (there always will, even if we have to grow it hydroponically on the sides of office buildings in Manhattan); it’s that coffee might not be viably farmable in places where that’s all that people have done for generations. The most important preemptive planning becomes making sure that coffee farmers are aggressively diversifying so that if it comes to a point where they can’t grow coffee, they already know what else works well now on the land they have.

And what does all this mean for us addicts on edge? It means take the bus, walk to the grocery store, carpool, and have a staycation so that your emissions are not contributing to the climate change that is creating this dilemma in the first place.

A similar version of this post appeared on New York’s attractive and intelligent The City Atlas website earlier this month.

For picture from the field follow whencoffeespeaks on Instagram.


1 Comment

What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s