If conditions are right, coffee beans could become a cash crop for Australia
Hundreds of millions of people rely on a cup of coffee to get them going in the morning. Worldwide, drinkers consume around 10 million tonnes of coffee every year. Coffee beans historically grow the best in tropical regions, with South America accounting for 45 per cent of exports.
Climate change in these highly productive areas has led to concerns that as much as half of them could be unproductive by 2050. During that same time period, World Coffee Research (WCR) partnership director Greg Meenahan says, demand is expected to double.
“Without research and development, the coffee sector will need up to 180 million more bags of coffee in 2050 than we are likely to have,” Meenahan told the Guardian.
Enter Australia, which lies just to the south of No. 4 coffee bean producer Indonesia. As part of WCR’s programme to test growing conditions in 35 countries not traditionally associated with coffee production, a team from Southern Cross University planted about 900 plants of 20 varieties of “climate-resistant” coffee beans in January. The experiment will take place at a research station in Alstonville, northern New South Wales.
Supply and Demand
On any given day, the world drinks approximately 2.5 billion cups of coffee. This translates to about $140 billion in annual sales. As WRC’s Meenahan stated, demand is only increasing as populations rise and more people enter the workforce. Industrialized nations drive coffee consumption, with many workers beginning their days with a cup. Americans alone drink 400 million cups per day, and nearly two thirds of US adults are regular coffee drinkers, according to a 2018 survey by the National Coffee Association.
The hot beverage is also popular in cold climes, with Finland, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and the Netherlands comprising the top five nations in per capita consumption. Yet as average global temperatures rise, the warm regions where coffee has thrived are threatened. Drought and heat could render as much as 88 per cent of the coffee-growing land in Latin America unproductive by 2050, according to the National Academy of Sciences. Brazil has been the world’s top producer for 150 years and exports 2.6 billion kilograms of coffee beans annually. Other Latin American countries Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, and Guatemala also rank among the top 10 exporters worldwide.
The coffee berry borer, a beetle that lays its eggs inside coffee berries, is frequently found above an altitude of 1,500 metres. This threshold used to mark its upper limit before temperatures rose on higher slopes, allowing the borer to thrive there. Arabica and Robusta are by far the dominant species of coffee beans, accounting for nearly all of the world’s product. While Robusta is better at adapting to higher temperatures than Arabica, production will need to move to higher altitudes or latitudes outside the tropics if those species are to survive projected climate trends.
Prof. Graham King, head of the Southern Cross team, thinks Australia has some advantages over current growing areas. “Within Australia we currently have the benefit of no coffee rust or cherry borer, or other major pests and disease,” he said. “This is quite unique compared with most production areas of the world.” King also said climate change could open more regions of Australia to coffee production.
‘No Death to Coffee’
Though Arabica and Robusta could do well in new areas, developing heartier species of bean is a focus of conservation efforts. Sydney-based Single O has already partnered with WCR to introduce three climate-resilient coffees to Australia as part of their joint “No Death to Coffee” initiative. WCR grew coffee using molecular breeding, halving the 25-year timeline typically needed for producing plants. Molecular breeding uses DNA profiles to help growers predict traits a plant will show when mature, allowing them to select the plants with the potential for the highest yield, reducing waste and cost. Whereas most coffee beans need high altitudes to thrive, the Marsellesa, Starmaya, and Centroamericano varieties WCR developed can adapt to multiple altitudes and resist pests and disease. These breeds have more genetic diversity than Arabica and Robusta, making them less susceptible to a single, devastating catastrophe.
WCR is encouraging roasters to contribute up to 20 cents per kilogram to its Checkoff programme, which funds its global research.
“We’re passionate about supporting all innovations that will lead to more stability for coffee producers and future-friendly varieties like Starmaya are set to enhance farmer livelihoods. We can’t wait to share it with the Australian coffee community,” Single O director of coffee Wendy De Jong told Bean Scene. “(We) are calling on Australian roasters and importers to do their part to fund the critical research and development needed for coffee and farmers alike by signing up to the WCR Checkoff program.”
With coffee exports valued at more than $30 billion, the investment could be well worth it for Australia if the plants take root.