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Will Climate Put an End to Your Morning Coffee?

Howard Schultz, who is stepping down in a few days as the head of the Starbucks coffee chain, says the changing climate threatens to make a daily cup of Joe even more expensive. It’s eventually going to be a luxury few can afford, if the industry – or someone – doesn’t figure out a way to blunt the effects, already being seen in the crop worldwide, of a changing climate.

In an interview published last week in Time Magazine, Schultz said the coffee industry, including Starbucks, is already working on solving the problem, since world governments aren’t doing enough – but that it’s far from having solved it.

Higher temperatures and more intense droughts have already made quality coffee harder to grow, and more expensive. Starbucks is investing in trying to save the crop out of self-interest. Higher prices at the shop will at some point reduce sales.

Starbucks has gone beyond just selling coffee because of the threat – the company has a farm that doubles as a laboratory in Costa Rica. “We have to be in the soil, growing coffee, to understand firsthand how to rectify and fix the situation,” Schultz, who stepped down as CEO last year and will give up his role as chairman next week, told Time. 

While the company has long tried to reduce its own contributions to climate change, the farm’s role is more one of adapting to the climate change that has already occurred and appears likely to continue.

“The farm serves as a testing ground where (Carlos Mario Rodriguez, director of global agronomy for Starbucks) experiments with creating and nurturing specially bred varietals and hybrids, pushing the boundaries of agronomy research to breed trees that are resistant to coffee leaf rust, or roya, which is ravaging coffee crops in Latin America,” Starbucks says in a blog post about the farm on its website. “He also analyzes soil and fine-tunes pruning techniques to increase coffee trees’ productivity. It’s boots-on-the-ground work with nothing less than the future of your cup of coffee at stake, as climate change forces farmers around the world to adapt their growing practices.”

Much of the company’s response to climate change has been more global in focus – trying to reduce emissions that contribute to the warming atmosphere.  The company has had a strong focus on renewable energy use for more than a decade and was a founding member of Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy  a corporate group that advocates for climate and energy policy. 

There have been efforts backed by some in the industry to crossbreed the Arabica bean with more resilient varieties that could better withstand changing climate. That effort is slow, however. And there is discussion of genetic modification of coffee beans, but there’s also robust debate about that, with significant opposition. 

The concerns aren’t new. Starbucks warned back in 2011 of a threat to the world’s coffee supply because of the changing climate. Now, coffee drinkers are just farther down the timeline.

“What we are really seeing as a company as we look 10, 20, 30 years down the road – if conditions continue as they are – is a potentially significant risk to our supply chain, which is the Arabica coffee bean,” the company’s sustainability chief Jim Hanna said back in 2011. What was 10 years down the road then, is now about two or three years away. 

While there has been plenty of praise for Starbucks’ efforts on the climate front, some environmental groups have said the company doesn’t do enough It has gotten criticism, for example, for falling short on promises to make its cups reusable, and continuing to use plastic straws.

The climate change problem isn’t just one for Starbucks and its customers. People who make a living from the crop throughout the supply chain face an uncertain future.

Last year, researchers publishing in the journal Nature wrote that 40 to 60 percent of the land used for growing coffee in Ethiopia could be unsuitable for the crop by the end of this century. A quarter of Ethiopia’s export earnings come from the crop. About 100 million people worldwide are estimated to earn their living from the coffee industry.

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