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Katherine McCabe / Gavel Media

Coffee and Climate Change: Cause and Effect

It can be difficult to wrap one’s head around the fact that some variables can be both victims and causes of the socio-ecological crisis that is climate change. Too often in our discourse, many processes, phenomena, and production efforts are construed as “good” or “bad,” which can make climate change seem very black-and-white. However, like many other existential threats in life, climate change has lots of grey areas associated with it. Taking a good, close look at coffee actually provides a great example of the complicated nature of the climate crisis. 

First, let’s examine coffee as the victim. Several of the predominant global producers of coffee have been subject to intense changes in weather patterns that the ecosystems are not accustomed to. For instance, in Central America, a rise in hurricane frequency threatens the timely harvesting of coffee plants in abundance and quality. Additionally, an increase in droughts throughout the entire world, including Latin America and Australia, threatens entire plantations of coffee crops. Coffee trees take several years to grow to maturity, and are not at all suited for a changing climate. Therefore, not only is the coffee industry frequently on the brink of economic decline, but many people’s reliance on coffee is threatened. 

In addition, a highly detrimental byproduct of coffee production, coined “leaf rust,” signals a warming climate as much as it does a waning coffee crop. Leaf rust is a fungus that requires a high, temperature-specific environment for it to grow. In Central America, unprecedented large amounts of leaf rust have been observed to grow on several coffee plantations. Leaf rust is deadly to plants and immediately destroys crops. Some even claim that Central America has been in a “leaf rust” epidemic for the past ten years or so. 

And now for coffee as the culprit. Coffee is considered to be a major contributor to climate change, both at the regional and global levels. Despite its historical significance and prominence, coffee is an incredibly tedious product to develop. Without the use of heavy industrial fertilizers, many farmers struggle to achieve a stable and reliable crop. These fertilizers have a devastating impact on the environment due to their toxicity to underground and aquatic ecosystems, and they contribute to the pollution of the local environments of coffee-growing regions. Furthermore, the use of fertilizers, as well as other general farmland-maintenance practices, contribute to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Coffee harvesting can be considered a significant threat to climate change, given the hefty that are produced each year in several different regions.

Many organizations have been grappling with the complexity of the issue. Several coffee farmers seeking to limit their greenhouse gas emissions or other harmful behaviors have banded together to establish new alternatives. For instance, some small harvesters utilize less water and fertilizer. Other farmers raise awareness of climate change among local community members in the hopes of preventing future harm of coffee production. 

Hopefully, one thing is clear: coffee production is a difficult cycle of cause and effect when it comes to global climate change. The production of coffee is contributory to and affected by the crisis. It is important to recognize that coffee is simply a microcosm of many widely-used practices of our global society and of several solutions that are being proposed for climate change. There are many specific examples. For instance, perhaps we can all buy electric cars in order to reduce vehicle emissions, but what about the destruction of forested land that will need to occur to create spaces for charging stations? And although offshore wind farms may help transition our energy to a renewable and non-carbon-based form, how can we be certain that we are not disrupting the local aquatic ecosystems that themselves likely contribute to a healthy global environment? A lesson to glean from all of them is that our leaders must recognize that a response to climate change requires detail and expertise. Simple “common sense” solutions may not always be the most effective. It will take effort to listen to the science of certain production mechanisms and cycles, but it is absolutely essential if we are to reverse the doomed fate of our world stemming from climate change.

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