By Anushka Gupta, Genetics & Genomics, ‘20
Author’s Note: Climate change is an important topic and must be discussed in order to mitigate the severe consequences. Unbeknownst to most people, however, coffee is also heavily impacted by climate change due to the sensitive conditions necessary for proper cultivation. I hope I can bring to light some of the less serious impacts of climate change and how something normal, like coffee, may become extinct without interference.
Over fifty percent of Americans enjoy a daily cup of coffee, with over 500 million cups of coffee served everyday. Unfortunately, with the increasing temperatures due to climate change, coffee is at high risk of extinction. However, with new advances in technology, coffee can now be grown in a wider range of environmental conditions. Specifically, the integration of modern technology to pre-existing growing practices and the use of artificial intelligence have both contributed to making a future with coffee a possibility.
To understand the new developing technologies, it is crucial to understand the severity of climate change and how it specifically affects the coffee production business. Given the rapidly increasing rate of global temperatures, coffee will likely be much more expensive and be of a much lower level of quality within just 30 years. On top of this, the amount of land that is available for coffee growing will be cut in half by 2050, according to Climate Institute, a company in Australia. Coffee is grown mostly in tropical regions, like Honduras and Brazil, which also happen to be the regions hardest hit by climate change. In fact, the top countries that are most affected by climate change are the same countries where the majority of the world’s coffee beans are grown.
This becomes problematic as coffee beans are also extremely sensitive to temperatures outside of their ideal growing temperature. Most coffee beans will only grow in the range of 18°C to 21°C at high altitudes. They also require a perfect amount of rain, as anything outside of these optimal conditions will damage or even kill the plants. Climate change has already had its effects on coffee production around the world. Heavy rains in Columbia, droughts in Indonesia, and coffee leaf rust (a fungus that attacks coffee bean leaves) in Central and South America have significantly decreased the coffee yield in the past few years. These are only a few of the many examples of how coffee growers are struggling to maintain their crop yield each year .
One way coffee growers are preparing for climate change is by engineering a new resistant strain of coffee beans. Currently, only one type of coffee bean, Arabica, dominates the entire industry. Arabica is known for its high quality flavor and aroma, but lacks genetic diversity, commonly leaving it susceptible to coffee leaf rust . The coffee leaf rust fungus preys on the leaves of coffee plants, and eats away at the leaf until an orange-brown color is left instead of the previous green leaf, thus destroying the plant’s ability to make its own energy . The lack of genetic diversity allows for this fungus to spread rampantly across coffee bean farms. For instance, if one strain of the fungus affects a particular variety of Arabica, it is also extremely likely that other Arabica plants will also be afflicted . With increasing temperatures already posing a greater threat to plants, the leaf rust fungus is expected to have an even more apparent impact on coffee yield. In addition, the availability of farmable land is decreasing, as coffee plants only grow in a narrow range, a range that is shrinking due to increasing global temperatures. However, creating a hybrid coffee bean can resolve this problem by choosing strains in hopes of achieving a desired quality, such as coffee leaf rust resistance .
Coffee breeder William Solano works at the tropical agricultural research and higher education center (CATIE) in Costa Rica doing just that. He works on creating coffee hybrids by combining genetically distant yet complementary coffee strains in hopes to achieve a product that takes in characteristics from each parent coffee strain . At CATIE, he created the Centroamericano coffee bean, a cross between the Ethiopian landrace variety Rume Sudan and another coffee bean called T5296, which is known for its coffee leaf rust resistance . On its own, the Centroamericano has proven to be twenty percent more productive than other coffee beans and is tolerant to coffee leaf rust. However, it soon became clear that it fares better against the effects of climate change as well, as it can survive temperatures below freezing. This was an especially surprising find as the plant was originally designed with only disease resistance in mind .
On top of changing the coffee bean, scientists are also finding a way to use new technologies to make coffee farming more efficient. The most promising example seen so far has been the implementation of artificial intelligence (AI) to the coffee growing business. AI technology now allows farmers to accurately analyze soil fertility properties and compute an estimation of coffee yields . The American technology company IBM has developed an AI-powered device that does just that. The device, called the AgroPad, is portable and about the size of a business card. This device has the capability to quickly analyze the soil to check for chemical composition, allowing coffee farmers to make educated decisions on how to manage their crops. Coffee growers can improve sustainability of their crops as well as save money since they know the amount of water and fertilizer that would be most beneficial to the crop to maximize yield.
To activate the device, only a small sample size is needed. The sample can either be a drop of water or a liquid soil extract that is produced from a pea-sized clump of dirt, depending on the type of analysis needed. Within about 10 seconds, the device will generate a report using a microfluidics chip inside that performs data analysis. The device can give accurate information on the pH, and amount of various chemicals, such as nitrite, aluminum, magnesium, and chloride. This information is given in the form of circles that correlate to the soil composition. These circles give colorimetric test results, where each circle will represent the amount of a specific chemical that is in the sample . The figure below shows what a sample report may look like. Once this output is given out by the AgroPad, the farmer can use an app to take a picture of the output where the app will read the data. The implementation of this device could allow coffee to be grown in more parts of the world as it will be evident what specifically must be done to ensure the productive growing of coffee in these fields .
Dedicated mobile app scanning of a sample report created by AgroPad
Fig. 1. Peskett, Matt. “IBM’s Instant AI Soil Analysis – the AgroPad.” Food and Farming Technology, 28 Jan. 2020, www.foodandfarmingtechnology.com/news/soil-management/ibms-instant-ai-soil-analysis-the-agropad.html.
Technology has the potential to save some of these coffee plants in the face of climate change, however, at the current rate of climate change, it is difficult to say how the world will look like thirty or even fifty years in the future, and if coffee will be a part of that world. Hopefully, more technological advances will continue to rise over the years giving hope to both coffee growers and coffee drinkers alike around the globe.
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- “No Farms, No Food.” IBM Research Blog, 7 Mar. 2019, www.ibm.com/blogs/research/2018/09/agropad/.
- “IBM’s Instant AI Soil Analysis – the AgroPad.” Food and Farming Technology, 28 Jan. 2020, www.foodandfarmingtechnology.com/news/soil-management/ibms-instant-ai-soil-analysis-the-agropad.html.