Is coffee under threat from climate change?

Monday, 5 March, 2018

Is your cup of coffee threatened by climate change?

If you weren’t worried about climate change before now, you might change your mind when you find out that it’s threatening your daily caffeine fix… Coffee leaf rust is causing serious problems for coffee farmers around the world, and climate change is literally turning up the heat, fuelling the fire so to speak.

Coffee leaf rust (or la roya in Spanish) is an infection caused by the fungus Hemileia vastatrix, carried in water, rain and even the air in the form of tiny spores. Its unfortunate resilience has helped it spread throughout every coffee-growing region in the world. The first signs of disease are yellow or orange spots on the leaves of the plant. As the infection spreads, it looks like brown powder on the leaves, resembling rust. Eventually, the leaves are unable to photosynthesise, the tree loses all its leaves, and farmers lose their coffee cherries. 


Here today, gone tomorrow

When you add climate change into the mix, trouble is definitely brewing. The fungus is sensitive to cold so coffee grown at higher elevation has typically had a higher survival rate. The world is experiencing rising temperatures and irregular rainfall though – just one of the factors driving the leaf rust epidemic. 

The disease’s reach has extended to higher altitudes and is wreaking havoc across the world, with Arabica crops most susceptible to infection. Considering that Arabica is the favoured coffee for snobs the world over,  it’s a bitter pill to swallow…much like the taste of Robusta, which is all we might be left with if the disease is left unchecked.


Not your cup of tea?

It happened in Sri Lanka… Sri Lanka was a major coffee producer until the late 1860s when the disease wiped out all coffee production and Sri Lanka took to producing tea instead. It’s the stuff of coffee connoisseurs’ nightmares. According to World Coffee Research, coffee-producing regions in Central America lost 18.2 million bags of coffee worth $2.5 billion to coffee leaf rust between 2011 and 2016, and 1.7 million people in the region were put out of work.

Fortunately, the coffee industry is fighting back. Scientists are working to develop hybrid plants that can adapt with the changing environment, and farmers are experimenting with planting new coffee varieties that are resistant to the threat of climate change, pests and diseases. Coffee communities and consumers around the world are also stepping up to support farmers in their efforts to adapt and grow sustainable coffee crops that will keep the world supplied with coffee beans for many years to come. So take the time today to cherish each espresso shot and cappuccino sip. It’s something special.

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