• In the home of coffee: An Ethiopian traditional coffee ceremony. (Getty Images / Eric Lafforgue)Source: Getty Images / Eric Lafforgue
Is there anything farmers and coffee lovers can do?
Charmaine Yabsley

20 Jun 2017 - 3:51 PM  UPDATED 20 Sep 2019 - 2:15 PM

It’s bad news for coffee lovers and the farmers who depend on our affection for a caffeinated cuppa. A new report has revealed that a serious threat facing the Ethiopian coffee industry – responsible for a large chunk of the world’s coffee bean production – could affect the taste and cost of our brews. And it’s not just Ethiopia.  

The report by researchers in Ethiopia and scientists from England’s Kew Gardens and Nottingham University, and published yesterday in the journal Nature, found that due to increasing temperatures and decreasing rainfall in Ethiopia, the amount of beans, and their flavour, may be severely affected. It’s predicted that growing areas in Ethiopia could decrease by almost 60 per cent by the end of the century, due to a 4°C temperature rise.

The home of coffee

Ethopia – where coffee is the livelihood of around 15 million farmers – is the ancestral home of coffee. 

“The best Arabica coffee is produced at high altitudes in the tropics,” Professor Robert Henry, Director of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation at The University of Queensland, tells SBS. “The loss of these cool, high, light environments is a consequence of higher temperatures. The composition of the coffee will be adversely impacted in these environments.”

Ethiopia is Africa's largest exporter of Arabica coffee beans - the world's fifth biggest - sending 180,000 metric tonnes of coffee worldwide, mostly likely including your favourite coffee shop.

Around half of us drink at least one cup of coffee every day, totalling 16.3 million cups every year. And while the majority of Australians drink instant coffee, the rise of coffee shops indicate that we’re slowly becoming fans of barista-made brews. Of course, it’s not just coffee drinkers who will be affected by the rise in temperature and reduced growing condition. More than 120 people in over 70 countries earn their living from coffee, a number which has been on the increase as the amount of coffee drunk worldwide increases by five per cent every year.

Professor Mark Adams, director of the Centre for Carbon Water and Food at the University of Sydney, tells SBS that there is a poor understanding of the effects of climate change on food production and quality overall. “In many parts of the world, we are seeing changes in rainfall and temperature, which have an effect on how much plants grow and the quality of what they produce,” he says. “The flavour compound in plants is often very sensitive to temperature and moisture, but we can’t predict, across all crops, what’s going to happen. It’s not just coffee, it’s also affecting everyday crops, such as wheat, barley and rice, which are a hugely important staple to the world’s food supply.”

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. “We will see displacement in crops, which means we’ll have to move them and find more suitable areas for growing coffee,” says Adams. “This carries problems, but opens up opportunities for farmers in other parts of the world.”

Ethiopia is not the only countries where coffee crops and farmers are tipped to feel the effects of global warming – or already dealing with problems. A 2016 report by the Climate Institute details how hot spells have been increasing in Brazil, while yields have been falling in Tanzania for years. Puerto Rico, Mexico, Columbia and Vietnam are also feeling the effects.

Is all bad news for your brew?

The World Coffee Research Institute may be coming to the aid of farmers and coffee addicts with its plant breeding program, which hopes to make the Arabica bean more resistant to climate change. “New varieties and production environments need to be identified to allow continued production of high-quality coffee,” agrees Professor Henry.

Nicole Maroush, sales and marketing manager at Knight Mattingly Coffee Roasters, tells SBS that she has seen a shift in the market’s purchasing of various types of coffee beans, away from single origin beans in favor of the consistency offered by a blend. “Single origin coffee beans are less consistent, whereas you’re guaranteed the same coffee every time with a blend. So if the standards of beans drop, then more roasters will return to blends.” 

What can coffee drinkers do? The Climate Institute suggests that consumers can look for brands that guarantee a fair return to farmers and their communities, thus helping them increase their capacity to adapt to the challenges of climate change.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @CYabsley

Coffee sorting image by DFID via Flickr 

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