Your morning cup of coffee could be threatened by climate change.

Researchers from the Royal Botanic Gardens in the United Kingdom have found that more than half of Ethiopia’s coffee production could be wiped out unless farmers move to higher ground. The problem is already putting the livelihoods of farmers at risk and could significantly impact access to some of the world’s most popular coffee blends.

Ethiopia is the world’s fifth-largest coffee producer. 

Using a combination of climate data, satellite imagery and extensive field research, the researchers found that 39 to 59 per cent of the country’s current coffee production areas could be unsuitable for coffee agriculture by the end of this century.

Their findings were published Monday in the journal Nature.

Satellite imagery

Lead author Justin Moat — also a professor at the University of Nottingham — used high-resolution climate data developed by the World Climate Research Programme and satellite imagery to do “very vigorous modelling” on the impact of climate change on the industry, he said in an interview with CBC News.

“We work with multiple scenarios to see what might happen with coffee. Nearly all the models are pointing to the same thing with very similar results.”


Not only is Ethiopia the world’s fifth-largest producer of coffee, its consumption is deeply ingrained in Ethiopian culture. (Siegfried Modola/Reuters)

The data allowed Moat and his team to classify each square kilometre of Ethiopia as either unsuitable, marginal, fair, good or excellent for growing coffee.

Co-author Aaron Davis, a biologist with an expertise in a field called natural capital, then led a team that tested the accuracy of those findings by visiting more than 1,800 sites in Ethiopia by road and on foot between 2013 and 2016.

“In total, we did 15 expeditions across Ethiopia and covered 30,000 kilometres,” Davis said in an interview.

No previous studies on the subject have included this level of on-the-ground validation of the models, said Davis.

Temperatures rising

Those expeditions showed plainly that the coffee industry is already feeling the impact of climate change, exactly as the data models predicted.

“In some areas, sure enough, when you visit those places what you see first-hand is that it has reached the tipping point,” said Davis. “Because of rising temperatures, drought is a main factor. The dry season is getting more severe and it’s getting longer.”


Subsistence farmers in the world’s coffee-growing nations rely upon the industry, including in Nicaragua. (Mario Lopez/Associated Press)

But it’s not all bad news for coffee farmers and the coffee-addicted around the world.

Using data from the study, Davis said the team “could produce some sort of action plan that would make the coffee sector of Ethiopia climate-resilient.” 

That’s because the data allows them to target the areas that are going to be most affected, said Moat, meaning that funds for environmental projects will be put to best use.

And since coffee is a forest crop, protecting the bean could create a financial incentive and political will for protecting forests and funding reforestation projects.

As for coffee drinkers, Kevin Walters sees interest building in the environmental impacts of that daily caffeine fix. Walters is executive director of Alternative Grounds, a fair-trade coffee wholesaler in Toronto that’s a member of Co-op Coffees, a green coffee importing collective.

Extra charge to combat climate change

When Alternative Grounds opened 22 years ago, “they told us no one would pay extra for coffee,” Walters said. Today that’s clearly not the case, because the co-op raises $100,000 to $150,000 per year by charging three cents more per pound, which is then redistributed to farmers to address climate change.

‘If we don’t address the environmental issues that are coming down the road, there’s going to be a scarcity of coffee. When there’s scarcity, the price goes up.’
– Kevin Walters,  coffee wholesaler

For some who prefer not to think about climate change, a potential coffee crisis could make the issue more immediate, he said.

“I think it will be another issue that they will see in their pocket books, because if we don’t address the environmental issues that are coming down the road, there’s going to be a scarcity of coffee. When there’s scarcity, the price goes up.”

There’s time to intervene with programs that could help small-scale coffee producers work in sustainable ways at higher altitudes, said Davis. “But if we don’t tackle the root causes of climate change, then there’s a real limit to what you can actually do.”

Deforestation, population growth, greenhouse gases and our reliance on fossil fuels will all need to be taken into account, he said.

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