The end of coffee: could Australia save the world's beans?
Climate change may devastate the globe’s major coffee-growing regions through extreme weather events – but Australia could be the solution
If a future of relentless fires, droughts, superstorms and rising sea levels makes you feel like you need a strong caffeinated beverage, there is some bad news: climate change is coming for the world’s coffee beans.
Greg Meenahan, the partnership director at the non-profit institute World Coffee Research, puts it this way: “Demand for coffee is expected to double by the year 2050 and, if nothing is done, more than half of the world’s suitable coffee land will be pushed into unsuitability due to climate change. Without research and development, the coffee sector will need up to 180m more bags of coffee in 2050 than we are likely to have.”
To address this, the organisation is undertaking the international multi-location variety trial, testing 35 coffee types across 23 countries to measure performance in different climates – including in regions not typically associated with coffee production, such as Australia.
In what could be Australia’s most significant contribution to coffee since the flat white, scientists at Southern Cross University will be testing 20 “climate-resistant” varieties.
Prof Graham King, a leading plant science researcher at SCU, says that in January up to 900 plants will be planted at the tropical fruit research station in Alstonville, northern New South Wales. According to King, climate change is expected to devastate the world’s major coffee-growing regions through extreme weather and by increasing attacks by crop pests and diseases.
“Many current mountainous tropical production areas of the world are likely to become untenable for coffee as climate change progresses,” he says. “Within Australia we currently have the benefit of no coffee rust or cherry borer, or other major pests and disease. This is quite unique compared with most production areas of the world.”
The impact is already being felt. As detailed in a 2016 report by Fairtrade Australia, in 2012 Central America was hit by a wave of coffee leaf rust (Hemileia vastatrix) after unusually high temperatures and high-altitude rains, causing US$500m in crop damages and putting nearly 350,000 labourers out of work.
Droughts and frequent storms have led to Costa Rican farmers giving up coffee for orange plantations. Outside Latin America, the coffee berry borer (Hypothenemus hampei) – which used to only appear at a maximum altitude of 1,500 metres above sea level – is being found above this limit, thanks to unseasonably hot conditions and higher rainfall on plantations from Tanzania to Indonesia. On Mount Kilimanjaro plantations, the beetle is now found 300 metres higher than last century.
Not only is Australia free of these blights, says King, but climate change could open up more Australian regions for growing coffee cherries owing to reduced frost damage in winter.
King warns that the trial will need at least five years to reap results, but fund