Climate change is affecting coffee flavor and aroma, study says

Dive Brief:

  • Research from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and Montana State University identified climate change as a significant stressor on the quality of coffee. Researchers synthesized 73 articles exploring the 10 most prevalent environmental factors associated with climate change. They found coffee is primarily susceptible to water stress, increased temperatures and larger quantities of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
  • Two consistent trends affecting the flavor and aroma profiles of coffee beans were higher altitudes — associated with better coffee flavor and aroma —  and too much light exposure — tied with a decrease in coffee quality. Researchers noted an additional study was needed to determine more accurately how carbon dioxide, water stress, and temperature affect coffee quality.
  • As climate change impacts the global coffee crop, demand for the beverage continues to increase in the U.S. This is forcing coffee purveyors to figure out how to meet rising consumer demand.

Dive Insight:

Coffee’s taste profiles are characterized by the amount of acidity, as well as the overall body and flavor, in a bean. As weather patterns change and crops become stressed, the once familiar attributes of certain bean varieties are at risk. Arabica coffee, in particular, is sensitive to any movement in temperature and even just a change of 1 degree Celsius can hamper growth.

The affects of climate change are so pronounced that 60% of wild coffee plants are under threat of extinction with 13 species critically endangered, according to a study by Britain’s Royal Botanical Gardens.  

Still, researchers with the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy pointed out that changes in crop quality may be offset by climate adaptation strategies and other management conditions. These include shade management to control light exposure, selection and maintenance of climate-resilient wild coffee plants, and pest management.

Some farmers are moving their crops higher into the mountains and considering ways to more effectively irrigate. Others are planting trees with higher density in hopes of offsetting the inevitable reduced production from each plant.

Despite this, there will still need to be additional strategies to help offset the impending loss of agricultural land for coffee production. Half of the world’s coffee growing regions will be lost by 2050 if climate change remains unchecked, according to a report from The Climate Institute of Australia.

As questions mount about the future of coffee production, demand continues to grow to levels that prompted the International Coffee Organization to predict that demand will outpace supply. Americans are leading the jump in global demand, drinking about 400 million cups per day.​ 

Reliance on the caffeinated beverage as a pick-me-up may not be enough to maintain demand if quality declines. Gourmet coffee now represents more than half of all consumption for the first time in history, according to research from the National Coffee Association. If flavor and aroma quality begin to decline, people may begin to search elsewhere for the taste they desire. This has the potential to affect the price of coffee and ultimately the livelihood of farmers who grow it.

To maintain quality, coffee growers will need to look toward mitigation strategies. This will place additional pressure on coffee users such as Olam Coffee and Nestlé to support their agricultural suppliers in integrating sustainable practices on their farms.

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