The Climate Change Coffee Connection

Living in Berkeley, I am at high risk of becoming a neo-hippie. There is extreme external pressure to eat raw, gluten-free foods, vote for politicians with spirit animals guiding them, and decorate my house in herbs and crystals. I can’t walk down the street without someone asking me if I want a sage smudge to cleanse my house or a raw vegetable juice to cleanse my colon. We are all about cleansing here for some reason. Totally OCD.

Though I have given in under some occasions, there are certain things I do to ensure that I will never become a full on new age Berkeley-ite. I do not do yoga (boring), I don’t smoke pot (a true act of rebellion here) and I drink as much coffee as I possibly can, all the time, all day long. In fact coffee drinking is one of the few things that set me apart from most of my colleagues and friends here. As a stimulant, caffeine actually gets in the way of an otherwise Berkeley mellow.

Lucky for me, there are plenty of college students here who drink obscene amounts of coffee, and they like it strong. I mean so strong that your eyes bug out of your head. We are talking acid-reflux causing, higher-consciousness-reaching coffee. A single cup of Philz coffee has me so caffeinated that I’ve seen colors and spoken to the dead after only a single cup. A recent trip to Seattle, the birthplace of Starbucks, had me relentlessly scouring the streets wild-eyed like a rabid zombie looking for coffee that was up to my standards. I only found watery, bitter liquids of unidentifiable origins. Shame on you, Seattle.

I am a coffee sympathizer. An aficionado. An addict. So when I heard that coffee was at risk under climate change, you can understand why I was so concerned. Coffee could not go.

So, I’m sure you heard about this study that came out recently as it was in all the papers: coffee is at risk of extinction (1). The news reported that temperatures are going to become too extreme, rain patterns no longer ideal, and farmers will be negatively impacted…oh yeah and so will you, you coffee addict. These are all concerns you would have for any agricultural plant: cucumbers, strawberries, watermelons, cannabis….as climate changes, so will farming. But that isn’t exactly what this study was looking at.

This study was interested in the wild coffee beans in Eastern Africa, where a large portion of our cultivated coffee comes from. The wild plants are living off the grid, if you will, where their value is less in how many beans they can produce, but the genetic diversity in those beans and the plants in general.

Now imagine if you will a population of cultivated coffee plants on a plantation that are very genetically similar. This is great, because you can treat them all the same when the temperature changes or it rains too much. As a farmer, you know how to treat them and they’ll consistently give you the same, good, smooth flavor. The problem arises when the environment suddenly changes or becomes too extreme. These boring plants with little genetic diversity suddenly can’t take the heat, or rain, or insects and bye, bye cultivated coffee plants.

To counter this, you would want a stock of plants that are genetically diverse that you could interbreed and utilize for their amazing temperature resilience or insect defenses. What the study demonstrated was that this stock of genetically diverse wild plants is going to bite the big one with climate change. So when farmers are looking for a stock of genetically diverse plants to breed into their boring plants, they will be sorely out of luck. Then it will be bye bye coffee. All coffee. Or at least Arabica coffee. Which is the good kind of coffee. And that will suck.

Now if you haven’t had your cup of coffee yet today you are probably thinking, “My God! Genetic Diversity! Coffee! Grunt! Bad!” Or if you have had your coffee, you might think, “Gosh, isn’t there anything that could be done? Couldn’t we collect the wild beans now and set up a seed depository somewhere, or breed the cultivated coffee so that it was more resilient or stock as much coffee as humanly possible into nuclear bunkers and defend it with shotguns?”

To which I say, “Yes…..” Or we could just be more aware of our energy usage and reduce the impact of climate change on the world as a whole.

Defending coffee in nuclear bunkers with shotguns vs. just riding your bike to work: either one works for me. You may have a preference.

Further Reading:
(1)The Impact of Climate Change on Indigenous Arabica Coffee (Coffea arabica): Predicting Future Trends and Identifying Priorities

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