Climate Crisis Creates Coffee Conundrum 

Mariyana M /
Mariyana M /

Climate change is a cruel mistress with many evil faces. It affects everything from appliances to cars, plastic bags and bottles, wildfires, and…coffee? Have no fear, caffeine junkies – Starbucks (who else?) is front and center for this epic showdown of climate change vs coffee beans. 

A recent study published in Plos One warns that climate change will significantly impede the cultivation of Arabica coffee beans. The study predicts that by 2050, current coffee-producing regions will face increasingly unsuitable conditions for coffee growth due to the “drastic effects of climate change.”  

Starbucks leaped at the chance to increase coffee bean production and, coincidentally, their prices for coffee, to battle the scourge of climate change.  

In 2021, Starbucks made a commitment to invest in forest protection and restoration, along with setting “climate-related” goals. Starbucks sees its coffee breeding program as an ongoing effort to adapt to climate change, continuously experimenting with new coffee varietals.  

Prior to creating their own climate-resistant coffee varieties, Starbucks provided farmers with “climate-resistant” seeds developed by other organizations, sometimes with minor adjustments by Starbucks. Over the past five years, the company has distributed three million seeds annually.  

While Robusta and Liberia coffee varieties are more climate-resistant than arabica, they are less preferred by consumers due to their taste and aroma. Starbucks aims to develop coffee varieties that combine the taste and aroma of arabica with the resilience of other varieties, meeting both consumer preferences and climate challenges. 

The coffee retail chain, a major coffee buyer responsible for around 3% of global coffee consumption, is proactively developing new Arabica coffee varieties tailored to thrive in a warming climate. Starbucks, with nearly 36,000 locations worldwide, heavily relies on around 400,000 farmers in 30 countries to supply their coffee beans.  

Over the past decade, Starbucks’ agronomists have been selectively breeding coffee trees to yield high fruit production in a shorter time and resist coffee leaf rust, a disease worsened by climate change.  

They have identified six varieties that meet their quality standards and offer distinctive flavor profiles, such as melon, honey, sugar cane, citrus, herbal, and floral notes. These new varieties promise quicker harvests, potentially every two years, benefiting Starbucks and its suppliers. The new beans are already available to farmers at Starbucks’ Hacienda Alsacia coffee farm in Costa Rica. 

Climate change is impacting coffee farmers globally, who cite irregular and severe rainfall as one factor negatively affecting coffee plants.  

The cultivation of arabica coffee faces an “urgent need” for the development of climate-resistant varieties, according to Miguel Gomez, a food marketing professor at Cornell. Current arabica plants are vulnerable to water stresses and diseases like leaf rust, exacerbated by high temperatures. To combat issues like coffee leaf rust, coffee farmers are collaborating with World Coffee Research, a nonprofit organization partnered with the coffee industry, including Starbucks. 

Starbucks has given out approximately 70 million coffee rust-resistant trees to farmers as part of its commitment to provide 100 million trees by 2025. 

While coffee rust-resistant trees may be a viable option, Monika Firl, a senior advisor at Fairtrade International, cautions that no single solution can fully address the “challenges posed by climate change.” She emphasizes the necessity of moving away from industrialized coffee farming and returning to a more ecologically sustainable model, promoting a return to coffee’s forest roots for a healthier ecosystem. 

But hold on to your wallets, Starbucks enthusiasts. The coffee giant is proactively warning that there is a price to be paid for their “climate change” resistant coffee, and customers should be prepared to foot the bill at the register. 

In its latest annual report, Starbucks highlighted the potential supply chain risks associated with the increasing costs and reduced availability of high-quality arabica coffee beans. The report outlined several factors that can impact coffee prices and supply, including adverse weather conditions, water scarcity, and crop diseases, which can lead to higher costs or supply shortages for Starbucks. The report also emphasized that climate change could worsen these factors, posing additional challenges to the coffee supply chain. 

Claiming climate change challenges is the new norm, giving industries the perfect excuse to raise prices. Now, climate change is coming for the world’s most beloved brew. But fear not, for Starbucks, the hero in this caffeinated epic, is here to save the day, one ridiculously overpriced latte at a time.  

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, and an even more bitter cup of coffee to sip.