Coffee culture’s climate challenge

Caterers and high street chains are enticing people back out with top quality coffee. But a warming planet could make a decent cup of Joe harder to find. David Burrows reports.

“Everyone is missing coffee culture,” Adrian Evans, Sodexo food transformation director, said to me during a chat last year. At the time the pandemic pendulum was swinging back towards another lockdown but he was incredibly positive about the future – one in which his clients were looking at fewer services (as they shrank their estate to accommodate more home working) but “better offers”.

We still don’t know whether, longer term, people will stay in their joggers and work from home, race back to the office, or (most likely) land somewhere in between. Upgrading the quality of coffee on site is one way of enticing people to return when it’s safe to do so.

Indeed, rather than a cup-to-bean machine businesses are thinking about recruiting in-house baristas, according to Evans. The prospect of a decent flat white from the (very hipster) shop neighbouring the local co-working space certainly makes me pine for some form of out-of-home working.

But each cup should be cherished for other reasons too. Indeed, covid might be the immediate threat to the out-of-home coffee sector – sales slumped 40% in 2020 – but climate change could make good quality beans harder to find long into the future. “…a coffee plant put into
the ground today will suffer the full brunt of climate change over the next three decades, and so will farmers,” noted World Coffee Research (WCR) in February, as it announced a new five-year strategy to “foster increases in productivity, profitability, and climate resilience”.

Bitter blows

The pressure is certainly on. The plant disease, leaf rust, is moving to the mountainous regions in Columbia, for example, where previously it was too cool for the fungus to survive. A small survey of 45 of the country’s farmers, by experts at Purdue University in the United States, showed that 90% reported changes in average temperatures, while 74% said droughts had become longer and worse.

As Bloomberg Green reported last month, Brazil – which produces 32% of the world’s coffee – has just had a rainy season with hardly any rain, which is threatening coffee crops. “I’m really concerned about running out of water in the coming months,” said one farmer. In Nicaragua, meanwhile, the optimum altitude for coffee cultivation could rise from 1,200 metres above sea level to 1,600 metres by mid-century.

A changing climate will affect coffee production in other countries too. Research published in April in the journal Scientific Reports showed a potentially “peculiar effect” in Ethiopia, Africa’s largest coffee-producing nation. There, the area of land suitable for “average quality” coffee might increase gradually until the 2090s.

But more is not necessarily better, as lead author Abel Chemura from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research explained. "[…] on the flipside, the suitable area for high quality specialty coffee types which are valued for their floral, fruity and spicy notes, will likely shrink if climate change continues unchecked,” he said.  

Less of the better

Some types will be hit harder than others. Yirgacheffe, cultivated in Ethiopia's southwest and reportedly one of the world's oldest and most sought after coffee types, could lose more than 40% of its suitable croppable area by the end of the 21st century in the worst case scenarios modelled by the experts. “If fewer countries are producing more of the world’s coffee, it makes it harder to find the unique flavours that coffee drinkers want and coffee businesses rely on,” WCR’s strategy reads. “In genetics, in agricultural systems, and in global economics alike, diversity confers resilience.”

Farmers forced to switch to growing conventional, bitter coffee types, would lose their premiums and have to compete with industrial production systems elsewhere that are more efficient. This is serious stuff and farmers will need to adapt with tailored approaches, such as agroforestry systems (shade crops) that will help protect crops from higher temperatures.

Research just published by experts at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, offers hope. Coffea stenophylla, a recently rediscovered species from West Africa, was found to have a “unique combination” of tolerance to high temperatures and superior behaviour. This species “could ensure the future of high-quality coffee”, said Kew’s head of coffee research Aaron Davis.

In research published in the journal Nature Plants, the team found that stenophylla grows and crops under similar climatic conditions to robusta, but with a higher mean annual temperature requirement of 24.9⁰C and 6.2–6.8C higher than arabica (of the 124 known species of coffee plants only two, robusta and Arabica, are used for the coffee we drink). So, stenophylla is hardy like robusta but does it taste as good as arabica?

An expert tasting panel at Union Hand-Roasted Coffee in London awarded it a speciality score (which is based on the protocol of the Specialty Coffee Association) of 80.25 out of 100, thus just creeping into the speciality grade which starts at 80 points. In a further blind testing panel, involving experts from the likes of JDE, Nespresso and Belco, 81% of the judges thought it was arabica.

Sensitive bunch

That’s good news. The bad is that 60% of the 124 species of coffee plants we know about are on the edge of extinction. These mightn’t be drunk but are critically important: many “may contain genes that can be harnessed to help coffee plants survive in the future, amid climate change and emerging diseases that attack coffee trees”, the BBC reported recently.

Coffee plants remain a sensitive bunch, growing best in a narrow range of temperatures. Robusta was once thought better able to handle global heating, but it is not quite as robust as was once thought. “Changing from arabica to robusta production could still be the way forward for many growers, but it might not be as successful a strategy as previously thought,” Jarrod Kath from the University of South Queensland told the Brisbane Times last year.

Again, such a move mightn’t be palatable for farmers, foodservice businesses or drinkers. Indeed, coffee research experts at Allegra noted last year that the UK was in the “fifth wave” of its coffee boom. Once content with a simple instant coffee, more consumers than ever are now craving “a top notch experience, whether that be a capsule coffee at home or a more refined experience in a chain or boutique”.

Covid has of course battered the coffee sector in the past year, with nearly £2bn wiped off market value, according to Allegra. Businesses are changing their models, and in some cases this could lead to more automation. “…technological advancements have transformed poor quality expectations associated with self-serve in recent years, with fresh ground coffee and fresh milk replacing instant and powdered formulas while delivering greater convenience for customers”, Allegra noted last month.

One in three UK consumers surveyed were also open to a fully automated coffee shop experience with no human interaction. This is good news, perhaps, given a shortage of skilled baristas currently. But what does it mean for the in-house or in-work barista experience that Sodexo’s clients are looking for?

Well, they will be needed too. Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland, for example, is seeking a coffee “guru”, according to recent reports. Indeed, drinkers that favour hand-prepared beverages appreciate the skill, interaction and personalisation offered by baristas. This suggests the role could be set for “a more specialised and premium focus in years to come”, Allegra reported. I’ll drink to that.

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