Starmaya. Centroamericano. H1. These are names those serious about their coffee should get to know, as hybrid varieties may be the coffees of the future.
Despite the abundance of specialty beans available today — familiar coffees include Arabica from Ethiopia, Colombia, Guatemala, and beyond — experts agree the coffee landscape is fundamentally changing.
Climate change threatens an existential disruption to the coffee industry with a veritable list of end-times plagues: heat, drought, floods, pests, and disease. As existing coffee breeds struggle in the extreme weather, prices will rise while Arabica varieties wane.
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Farmers are now shifting their techniques. Many are adopting hardier hybrids like those mentioned above. But without a monumental reduction in global carbon emissions, shifts in America’s coffee supply could be a few bad harvests from collapsing.
The Fragility of the Coffee Supply Chain
Coffee is an agricultural product that depends on a vast and complex network of players to bring flawless beans to retail shelves each week. While around 64 percent of Americans drink coffee each day, few recognize the fragility of its supply chain. Between 70 and 80 percent of global production depends on 25 million smallholder farmers working five acres or less in Africa and Latin America. For the last decade, these farmers have struggled to make ends meet, many surviving at the threshold of poverty.
Climate change experts warn that global temperatures will continue to rise this century, increasing between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees Celsius (about 35 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit) in the hottest months. However, it is the resultant weather swings that pose the greatest present-day problems for coffee producers — and consumers.
“Most places growing coffee are already experiencing tremendous variability,” Hanna Neuschwander, communications director, World Coffee Research, says. “And that’s what pushes a farmer out. It’s not the 0.1-degree gradual rise, it’s the peaks and troughs, and those are already here.”
The World Coffee Research organization (WCR) was founded in 2012 as a non-profit to study the future of the industry’s agricultural sector with climate change as the backdrop.
WCR views climate change as the single biggest threat to the long-term sustainability of coffee. Without a reduction in carbon emissions, research and development must focus on mitigation like planting climate-appropriate varieties. Much like the hybrids in the wine industry, coffee varieties are created to account for environmental realities.
As Neuschwander explains, “Modern breeding is like a design process. What features do I want this chair to have? A straight back, a comfortable seat? We ask the same questions about [coffee] varieties.”
The goal is for “designer” hybrids to weather environmental extremes.
How Wild Weather Hurts Small Farmers
Thirty-year industry veteran roaster George Howell of the eponymous company in Massachusetts likens climate change to a spinning top. “The unpredictability is creating turbulence,” he says. “Imagine the disruption caused by sudden heavy storms during the harvest season or dry spells during the rainy season.”
East Africa is historically prone to weather extremes but is otherwise thought optimal for coffee farming. However, droughts and floods have intensified. In late 2019 and early 2020, Kenya, Rwanda, and Ethiopia faced a surge in rainfall attributed to the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) weather system. Like the Indian Ocean’s version of the Pacific’s El Niño, the IOD can lift ocean temperatures up to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius).
Ethiopia’s coffee farmers rely on seasonal arid weather in November to dry their cherries on raised beds. With the early, prolonged rains of 2019 in Jimma, farmers scrambled to shield crops with tarps, risking moisture and mold and mistakes.
When rain falls unexpectedly or with ferocity, it disrupts the entire value chain, from picking, processing, logistics to quality control. Classic supply and demand dictates less and more expensive coffee for American drinkers while hurting farmers.
More Heat, More Problems
In Central America, humid and wet conditions have pushed a devastating fungus called leaf rust, or roya, deep into new regions from Colombia up to Mexico.
El Savador is a stark example: “In 2010-2011, the country produced 1.7 million 60-kilogram bags of coffee. During the 2013-2014 harvest, farmers only produced 499,000 bags,” Matthew Swenson, chief product officer, Chameleon Cold Brew Coffee in Texas, says. Leaf rust is believed to be the culprit for much of the 70 percent decrease in production.
In 2011, heavy wind and rain from Tropical Storm Agatha carried spores into Guatemala’s mountains, bringing with it an explosion of fungus. “I remember driving around and seeing farms without a single leaf or cherry due to rust in 2012,” Howell says, recalling a buying trip to the country. “It was all gone. Leaves had fallen to the ground. Those farmers who lost that crop had no safety net, no subsidies, nothing.”
Much like wine grapes, higher temperatures impact the coffee plant negatively by accelerating ripening, shifting harvest dates forward, and reducing photosynthesis, which compromises flavor development and quality. Because Arabica grows best in cooler conditions, quality degrades as the thermometer reading rises.
Changes in climate invite new diseases and pests to thrive — for example, the life cycle of the coffee borer beetle has become faster, increasing its populations. The beetles bore into the coffee cherry to lay eggs that hatch days later, destroying the fruit from the inside out.
Farms at lower elevations in Brazil are now grappling with rising temperatures, yet they have nowhere to go. “It’s unrealistic to think producers can afford new land or move up the mountain to a cooler location, especially when they’re already struggling,” says Gabriel Agrelli Moreira of Daterra Coffee, a sustainable coffee farm in Brazil.
While farmers could pivot from quality Arabica production to sturdier, high-volume Robusta, the suggestion is akin to Burgundy’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay growers switching to Gamay and Aligoté.
Hope for Hybrids
Much of the coffee industry’s hope lies at the feet of F1 hybrids. These varieties are stronger in the face of weather extremes and diseases. To save the industry, they must prove climate-change-proof and economically viable for the farmer while tasting delicious to consumers.
Though farmers and breeders have been taking advantage of hybrids (when two unique coffee varieties are bred together) for over 100 years, the use of first-generation (F1) hybrids, which tend to have significantly higher performance, is very new in coffee — they have only been planted commercially for less than 10 years.
The F1 generating excitement is Starmaya, a variety that can be shared among farmers in cheaper seed form. Australian roasting company Single O released a limited-edition Starmaya coffee to prove its consumer appeal, pitching it as “climate-resilient” and “future-friendly.”
Can Adaptive Farming, Soil Carbon Sequestration and Hybrids Save Coffee?
Unfortunately, a one-size-fits-all panacea to mitigating climate change doesn’t exist. Every farmer must adjust their practices based on knowledge, resources, and stamina.
Raul Perez is a fourth-generation coffee farmer in Acatenango, Guatemala. The beans from his farm, La Soledad, frequently end up in the hands of America’s best roasters, from George Howell Coffee to Intelligentsia.
Perez uses adaptive farming techniques to combat heat and drought. Shade trees keep coffee plants cool. Eschewing herbicides helps grass preserve soil moisture and prevent erosion. Grafting Arabica to Robusta roots, using a common technique in wine, helps with drought- and heat-resistance. He’s also experimenting with hybrids with promising results.
Daterra launched Bioterra Academy, a research lab used to study soil health and “carbon farming” as a tool to fight climate change. A healthy soil retains water, prevents plant disease, cycles nutrients, fixes nitrogen, and can sequester carbon.
“About 25 percent of the planet’s soil has already been degraded,” Moreira says. The UN FAO calculates the world has only 60 years of harvests left, and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) suggests half the world’s coffee-producing land will be unsuitable by 2050.
American Business Must Invest at the Source: Small Coffee Farmers
“Private enterprise needs to step up and lead the way. Businesses at the top of the supply chain have a moral and business continuity obligation to re-invest at origin because without those farmers, we don’t have a healthy long-term prospect for our businesses,” Swenson says.
Promising tools like farming strategies and hybrids are only as good as their reach. Most smallholder farmers can’t afford to renovate farms. Many live in remote areas without access to research. Country-specific coffee associations like ANACAFE in Guatemala and the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros (FNC) in Colombia provide varying degrees of assistance, along with non-governmental organizations and private donors, but business must be integral to the solution.
In Guatemala, Chameleon Coffee is funding educational centers focused around 12-acre plots. On these experimental farms, producers can learn about the best varieties for their areas, methods of re-planting, proper plant spacing, and other techniques like pruning. Swenson says the effort is worth it because the company can demonstrate best practices without farmers risking their crops, while simultaneously building trust.
Saving coffee will take strategy and time, but forget the future. Climate change is here now, and its effects are rippling through the industry, soon to reach your very cup.