Whole latte love for the future of coffee

Coffee beans in El Salvador. Image credit: Rodrigo Flores

Rafa Alonso-Arenas, a Latin American nature entrepreneur and alumnus of the MSc Climate Change, Management and Finance course at Imperial College London, explores how climate change is impacting coffee farmers and plants and what can be done about it. Follow him on Twitter at: @rafa_alonso_mx

Who doesn’t like a cup of coffee in the morning? I’m talking about specialty coffee, a term used to describe the highest grade of coffee made with an espresso machine or a French press. This type of coffee, as delicious as it is, is highly threatened by climate change, together with the livelihoods of those whose cultural heritage and main source of income depend on it.

The world’s most popular drink

Coffee is the most popular drink in the world, with two billion cups consumed each day. There are around 124 species of wild coffee (genus Coffea), but only two make the bulk of coffee traded globally: Coffea arabica (60%) and Coffea robusta (the remaining 40%). C. robusta is largely sold to make instant coffee, while C. arabica is better known as a specialty coffee.

The Coffee Bean Belt. Source: Crema.co

C. arabica prefers certain latitudes near the equator and high altitudes where daytime temperatures are between 17°C–23°C. As human activity (mainly from the burning of fossil fuels for energy in high-consuming countries, producing greenhouse gas emissions) continues to increase global temperatures and cause extreme weather patterns, the impacts are felt by plants and farmers alike. This highlights the inequality of the climate crisis, as those who have contributed the least towards it are often the most affected, particularly millions of small-scale farmers and workers in low-income countries across the world.


Changing rain patterns are impacting the health of coffee plants, creating uncertainty for farmers. In some areas, rain is starting later in the season, whilst others are seeing unexpected fluctuations in rainfall throughout the growing season. These changes mean farmers spend more time and money mitigating the impacts of an unexpected lack of rain, additional rain, or sometimes even hail storms.

Increasing temperatures – impact on coffee plants and farmers

With rising global temperatures, land that was once used to grow coffee is becoming inhospitable. A recent study estimates that by 2050 the amount of land that can sustain coffee cultivation will be reduced by 50% . In addition to this, authors of this study estimate that higher temperatures may also reduce the yield of C. arabica.

Increased temperatures are also favourable to a number of fungi which threaten coffee plants, including Hemileia vastatrix, which causes a leaf disease known as coffee rust. In recent years, this had created a major crisis in Colombia and Central America.

Hemileia vastatrix, causing coffee rust. Image credit: Howard F. Schwartz

Changing climate conditions have a devastating impact on smallholder farmers and relocating plantations to higher altitudes is not an option for many. A changing climate also brings additional physical effort, high upfront costs, and more production uncertainty. In the long run, coffee growers may have to change the way they use their land and find new sources of income.


Planting coffee in monocultures has a big impact on local biodiversity and puts wild coffee species at risk of extinction. Monocultures leave little room for other plants with maybe one or two other species of tree left to provide shade and improve soil fertility. But even when coffee trees are grown in ‘coffee forests’ (when coffee grows naturally in primary forests that have not been disturbed or damaged), they are still threatened by human activity. Using nearby land to produce meat and dairy, planting palm oil, or building urban developments, will all have an impact on local conditions. Biodiversity loss weakens natural systems, resulting in soil degradation and a reduction in the co-benefits that ecosystems such as coffee forests provide.

Graphic of the five coffee-growing systems of Mexico form the paper Biodiversity Conservation in Traditional Coffee Systems of Mexico (published in Conservation Biology) by Moguel, Patricia & Toledo, Víctor (1999).

The future of coffee

Wild coffee can be bred with commercial coffee species to create more resilient strains. However, with 60% of wild coffee species at risk of extinction, the coffee plant’s ability to bounce back after extreme weather events or future changes in climate is likely to be limited.

What can be done to help

Fortunately, there are things that can be done to support both coffee plants and farmers, such as agroforestry, responsible consumption and holding our elected officials to account. As is often the case, those who suffer the consequences are often the ones who contribute least to climate change. Policy changes and financial support from governments, financial institutions and entrepreneurs can help coffee farmers to adapt to the climate crisis.

People who live in high-income countries can hold elected officials to account, requesting that they provide the necessary financial support to developing nations. For example, the $100 billion per year from 2020 climate pledge that has not yet materialised from high-income countries with large historic greenhouse gas emissions. The commitment was made to developing nations to support with cuts to carbon emissions, economic adaptation, and minimising the impacts of the climate crisis.

However on a much smaller scale, we all can do our part by by choosing an ethical, shade-grown, bird-friendly cup of delicious morning coffee.

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