Hundreds of millions of people wake up every day and get high right away. Caffeine is, of course, their drug of choice, which is socially acceptable and even encouraged by workplaces, which often give it away for free. Caffeine use is so common that most people don’t even think of it as drug use, even though it has big effects on mood, digestion, sleep, and many other bodily functions. It can even be hard to stop, causing strong addicts to have cravings and headaches. (At least coffee has been shown to be good for your health in many ways.)
Some predictions say that by 2050, half of the land used to grow coffee will no longer be useful.
We’re so used to having caffeine when we’re awake that it’s hard to imagine a world where coffee, tea, and energy drinks aren’t around. Like fish don’t notice water, many people don’t pay attention to their favorite stimulant. But what if all of that went away one day? What if everyone’s cup of Joe in the morning turned out to be a cup of… No? (Sorry.)
It’s surprising, but it’s possible. As climate change gets worse, coffee plants face more dangers, which means that many species of coffee could go extinct in the wild one day. Some places are already having trouble growing coffee because of things like drought, floods, heat waves, and the spread of pathogens like fungi and viruses. If this keeps up, one of the most popular things in the world could become hard to get and very expensive. Some estimates say that by 2050, half of the land used to grow coffee will be useless.
Aaron Davis, a botanist and senior research leader at London’s Kew Gardens, has been studying coffee plants all over the world since the middle of the 1990s. Davis co-wrote a study last year that talked about six new species of coffee plants that are native to Madagascar. Some of these species are already listed as critically endangered. Davis also co-wrote an article in 2019 for Science Advances that looked at the health of coffee species around the world and found that 60 percent are in danger of going extinct and 11 percent don’t have enough information to say.
But the bad effects of global warming on coffee farming are already being felt around the world. Coffee farmers who have been growing coffee for generations are seeing their crops struggle in a changing climate.
Davis told Salon, “Sometimes it’s been almost spooky to hear what farmers tell me about how the climate is changing, even though they don’t have access to climate data or records.” “They haven’t looked at the graphs or the IPCC reports. But a lot of what they say matches what has happened and what is happening, “both in climate models and in data that has been kept.
Changes in the weather don’t always have direct effects on coffee. Davis says that in some ways, higher temperatures can be good for coffee plants. But the best places to grow coffee are starting to move, which could make coffee harder to find and more expensive.
Davis says, “Coffee has already moved.” “It’s not really because of the temperature. It’s a mix of temperature and a lot of other factors, especially precipitation, rainfall, seasonality, extreme weather events, and changing weather patterns. It’s hard to understand.”
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For example, Davis was a co-author on a paper that came out last month in Nature Food. It showed that Coffea arabica is sensitive to vapor pressure deficit (VPD), a variable that had not been studied before in coffee. VPD is mostly about how heat can pull water out of the soil, making plants have to take in more water from the ground. Even if this doesn’t kill the plants, it can make them use less energy to make fruits, which is what coffee is, technically. The rise in global temperatures and VPD could have an effect on the yields of more than 90% of the countries that grow coffee.
Davis thinks that cultivated coffee plants will probably always be around in some form, but that wild coffee plants are in danger, which could cause a lot of trouble in the near future. There are 130 types of coffee that scientists know about, but people only drink two of them: Coffea canephora and Coffea arabica, which make up 43% and 57% of the global market, respectively. That wasn’t always the case, though.
During most of the 1800s, C. arabica was the only type of coffee that was sold. Southeast Asia had a lot of trouble with a fungus called coffee leaf rust (Hemileia vastatrix) between 1869 and 1930. This fungus makes it hard for plants to make food through photosynthesis. Parts of India, the Philippines, and Ceylon, which is now called Sri Lanka, were hit by the disease. It left “Arabica graveyards” in its wake.
Some of the plantations never got back on their feet, so they started growing tea instead. Some people started growing C. liberica, a different species that was naturally resistant to the rust. But over time, its defenses weakened, and it too became vulnerable to the fungal pathogen. Its unique taste also made it less popular in the area.
Davis says, “We have the chance to change the coffee crop portfolio from just two species to maybe three, four, or five species, which would give us more ways to adapt to climate change.”
At the beginning of the 1900s, C. canephoa, also called Robusta, took over the area. This is just one example of how coffee plants’ needs have changed over time, and each time, people had to find tools or other solutions that already existed in nature. The term for this is “bioprospecting.” But if, for example, another strange plant disease makes it hard to grow Arabica or Robusta and wild coffee species are rare or gone, we might not be able to save this industry again, as has happened with many plants in the past.
Davis says, “Researchers and breeders have gone back to the wild many times to find plants with specific traits that are needed to keep the industry going, such as resistance to disease or pests.” “I think that what we really need to do is work on these now to get ready for the problems we’ll face in the next few decades.”
If coffee went extinct in the wild, we might be able to make fake coffee by soaking a substrate or plant material in caffeine and then making coffee from that. The use of yeast or bacteria in bioreactors to make coffee in a lab is another idea that is being looked into. Davis, on the other hand, says that we should try to tame some of the other 128 types of coffee plants before they go extinct. Some of these types will also taste different. For example, they may be less acidic or bitter.
There is also a strong economic reason to save coffee. After crude oil, coffee is the most traded agricultural product in the world. This international business is made up of about 100 million people, including 25 million farmers.
Even though coffee is important to our global economy and our morning routines, we still don’t know much about how coffee plants grow in the wild or what they might have to offer us. So it’s not just about making synthetic versions, coming up with new varieties, or moving plantations to higher ground. It has to do with keeping a drug industry going (which isn’t a bad thing) because it shows something unique about being human.
Davis says, “We really, really need to pay attention to carbon neutrality.” “Losing things like coffee, wine, or chocolate is a deep psychological problem,” which is also a problem with global warming. “Life just becomes a little bit more mundane,” Davis says. “Not everyone likes to drink coffee. But when you start to lose all the things that make life special, it starts to really wear on your mind.”