Why your morning cup of coffee is under threat

Charity Fairtrade Ireland has issued bleak news that stocks of beloved coffee could disappear by 2050

As Ireland and parts of Europe were wrestling with empty shelves and rationing due to shortages of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, a more worrying warning came from Fairtrade Ireland that coffee could disappear by 2050.

Should we be worried about threats to food and drink commodities?

The vegetable shortages are being linked to bad weather in Spain and Morocco. This is compounded in Ireland because growers cannot afford to heat their greenhouses. Unseasonably cold weather in southern Spain and northern Morocco has not helped. The problem is most acute in the UK as it is exacerbated by Brexit.

This issues will no doubt be sorted within a few months, though climate disruption is likely to be an ongoing factor. However, the shortage of coffee is a more permanent threat where climate change is most to blame, Fairtrade underlined. Moreover, the Irish charity, which manages the ethical label, suggested cocoa and other foods grown in hotter climates could also become extremely rare and expensive treats within the next 30 years. And that includes chocolate.

What are the current problems with coffee?

Farmers who grow coffee beans are experiencing serious challenges due to many extreme weather events, such as in Kenya, east Africa, which is suffering its worst drought on-record, according to Fairtrade executive director Peter Gaynor, who was speaking at the launch of its annual festival of ethically-sourced products at Dublin’s Mansion House.


“A worrying 93 per cent of the Fairtrade coffee farmers in Kenya surveyed are already experiencing the effects of climate change,” Gaynor noted.

By 2050, it is estimated that up to half of the world’s land currently used to farm coffee may be unusable due to floods, droughts and increased temperatures, primarily driven by rising carbon emissions. Experts predict climate change could kill off the two main coffee varieties, while also jeopardising 60 per cent of the planet’s 124 wild coffee plants.

Meanwhile the coffee fungus La Roya, also known as coffee rust, is an added threat. Between 2012 and 2017 it caused more than $3 billion (€2.8 billion) in damage and lost profits while forcing almost two million farmers off their land.

Over much of the past decade, the fungus has killed many coffee trees in Central America, resulting in an estimated 40 per cent loss of its coffee crop. As researchers work desperately to maintain global supplies, there are signs climate change and wild weather are making the problem even worse.

The likely ultimate culprit is a phenomenon called climate variation, which sees weather patterns changing dramatically from year to year. More rain in recent years has meant more rust, which blankets the leaves of coffee trees, cuts off sunlight, and restricts photosynthesis until a coffee tree keels over and dies.

What other commodities are at risk?

The news is equally bleak on that front, unfortunately. Gaynor explained: “We Irish are very fond of our tea, and bananas and increasingly of our coffee. But the question now is what’s going to happen to our food given the increasing impact of climate change on the 500 million small farmers who grow most of the world’s food?”

What actions can reduce the threat to production in climate-vulnerable places?

The international Fairtrade movement provides higher incomes for farmers of products with its label. This puts them in a better position to become climate resilient and to apply the lessons of science.

The threat, however, increases the likelihood of having to pursue more radical solutions such as experimenting growing coffee beans in new places or in air-conditioned environments. Coffee normally grows best at an altitude where there is the ideal combination of sunlight and cool temperatures.

As always, curbing average global temperature rise will bring an immense dividend quickly, including enhanced food sustainability. That equally applies to stocks of beloved coffee.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times