By 2050, the area suitable for growing coffee around the world is projected to be cut in half.
I don’t even drink coffee, but this is enough to keep me awake at night.
Coffee trees are picky, growing only in parts of the tropics with the right mix of temperatures, rainfall, and soil. As such, they’re extremely vulnerable to climate change. Rising average temperatures and erratic rainfall will mean that coffee won’t be able to thrive in many of the places it now grows, and coffee farmers will need to move their farms to new areas — mostly to higher altitudes, clearing tropical forests as they go — or switch to other crops to earn a living.
The end result: There could be less coffee overall, and the coffee that is available will likely taste different (and not necessarily good).
This affects a lot of people. There are more coffee lovers than ever: More than 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed every day, and global demand for coffee is expected to rise by up to 150 percent rise by 2050. Shrinking supplies, more demand: There is, quite literally, no time to lose to protect the coffee that you drink, the climate and ecosystems that coffee needs, and the tens of millions of small-scale farmers who make their living growing the crop.
The coffee industry is waking up to the new climate reality, and is now taking serious steps to make coffee sustainable.
I came to work in conservation through my love of trees. But in the past few years, it’s the coffee tree — yes, a tree that produces a beverage I don’t even drink — that has taken up much of my time and effort. I’m happy to report, then, that the coffee industry is waking up to the new climate reality, and is now taking serious steps to make coffee sustainable.
That’s where the Sustainable Coffee Challenge comes in. The Challenge was born two years ago to bring together players from throughout the coffee sector, big and small, to make coffee the world’s first sustainable agricultural product. It’s eminently achievable — already, fully 48 percent of all coffee is being produced under some sustainability standard.
From growers to roasters to retailers — and even governments of countries where coffee is grown — the Sustainable Coffee Challenge has been gaining members and momentum since 2015, and retailers and public-facing campaigns are mobilizing to educate billions of coffee-drinking customers on why sustainability matters (as if the prospect of a poorer-tasting brew wasn’t reason enough).
But just as efforts were brewing to head off the coffee-pocalypse, the Challenge ran into some big questions: Where to begin? What coffee-producing regions of the world are most likely to feel the burn in a changing climate? And where are tropical forests — the same forests that regulate global climate — most at risk from coffee farmers who have to shift their crops to higher ground?
Fortunately, we’re finding answers to these questions with science. New research is helping us map and monitor coffee and the forests where they grow — and identify specific places where climate change is causing a shift in coffee production, and how best to manage it.
A recent study by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) found that coffee grown at lower altitudes already requires adaptation today. (It also found that in the future, coffee grown in the areas it studied wouldn’t taste as good).
Another new study by one of my colleagues at Conservation International, Lee Hannah, showed that nearly 90 percent of the land suitable for growing coffee in Latin America is under threat from climate change by 2050.
At the heart of the coffee trade are 25 million small-scale farmers who produce 90 percent of the global coffee supply.
But it’s not all bad: Authors of both studies noted that smart management of coffee trees — as well as the surrounding forests and bees that the trees require — can help farmers, and coffee trees, to adapt.
Faced with the imperative to adapt, the industry is taking action, collectively investing some $350 million a year to tackle these issues through research, farmer support, sustainable sourcing and other programs.
For example, organizations such as The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) are providing retailers with tools for measuring supplier performance on the most important issues, like deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. Through its Commodity Mapping Project, TSC is helping companies get a better grasp of critical issues facing coffee supply chains, including the role of coffee in deforestation, and where we should focus our conservation efforts to minimize the impact on the farms and forests.
The impact on people is no less important. At the heart of the coffee trade are 25 million small-scale farmers who produce 90 percent of the global coffee supply. These farmers and the workers they employ rely on the revenue from coffee sales to support their families.
So, what can you do? You can start by paying attention and asking questions: Find out if your favorite coffee shops and retailers are committed to sustainability and what they’re doing to ensure the long-term availability of your favorite coffee. Remember that sustainability is about more than being earth-friendly — it’s also about people’s livelihoods and fair labor practices, so learn more about what it really takes to make a crop sustainable at sustaincoffee.org.
Finally, use your buying power to support companies that are doing the right thing, and tell us about it with #SustainCoffee.
We’re heading into a critical time. What the coffee industry and the Sustainable Coffee Challenge achieve in the next few years will determine the future of a crop that billions of people enjoy, a crop that has huge implications for the health of Earth’s tropical forests, a crop that supports entire economies.
Whether you like coffee or not, this affects you. It’s time to demand sustainability.
About Social Good Summit
The intersection of technology and new media has redefined our understanding of human progress. In the midst of this rapidly changing world, the Social Good Summit focuses on where we’re headed. Held annually during the United Nations General Assembly week, the Summit unites a lively community of global citizens and progressive thought leaders around a common theme: #2030NOW. A dynamic exploration of the world we want to live in by 2030, the Social Good Summit will focus on how we can unlock technology’s potential to make the world a better place.
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“At the heart of the coffee trade are 25 million small-scale farmers who produce 90 percent of the global coffee supply.”