Coffee, Climate Change and Canaries

Coffee, Climate Change and Canaries

What’s the impact of global climate change on coffee?

I’ve had conversations with a number of coffee farmers — particularly folks in South and Central America — about what they’re experiencing on their farms. The stories they tell are of seasons off kilter: of too much rain at the wrong time of the year, not enough when they need it; of coffee trees flowering and coffee cherries ripening in increasingly staggered spans — especially among farms at varying altitudes —  making harvest more challenging. But still, they are simple anecdotes, these stories farmers tell… and every year has such stories. They are not, themselves, a body of evidence of climate change.

The report released by Oxfam this month — Turning up the heat, Climate Change and Poverty in Uganda — now that’s evidence of the impact of climate change on coffee production. And the evidence does not bode well:

“The outlook is bleak. If the average global temperatures rise by two degrees or more, then most of Uganda is likely to cease to be suitable for coffee..this may happen in 40 years or perhaps as little as 30.”

Keep in mind that the figures that Oxfam cites are for coffee production in all of Uganda. It’s more than possible — it’s likely — that coffees from premiere origins within Uganda could succumb to the devastating effects of a changing climate in only just a few years as they lose those unique microclimates that contributed to their coffee’s character. Coffees like Bugisu, the bluesy, saturated cup from Mbale that I profiled here a short seven years ago:

In the cup this is a deep, dark mysterious liquor. It’s muscular, musky and oozes languidly on the tongue. Its deeper tones are bitter chocolate, its high notes ripe fruit… very ripe. It’s slightly wild, rich, fat and funky. Not the fuzzy stuff of a monsooned Malabar–it’s far too smooth for that–but still it’s earthy and intense. The Bugisu has got the body of a Java, and while its finish is long and syrupy, it is decidedly not sweet.

From an utterly selfish point of view, I don’t want to lose this coffee. But you don’t have to be self-serving to worry about the devastating impact of climate change on coffee, because it’s the very same impact that will be affecting the wider food supply. All the world’s food supply. Crops like coffee that thrive only in superbly balanced ecosystems and rarefied microclimes are likely harbingers of the greater threat of climate change. Where coffee fails, tea may follow. Where tea fails, rice may follow. Where rice fails, well… two thirds of the world’s population may follow.

Like canaries in the coal mine, specialty coffee — and the farming families who produce it — may prove among the first to succumb to the hazards of a warming world. And if that doesn’t worry you just a little bit, it damn well should.