This is what the future of coffee might taste like

There have been lots of studies into the likely impacts of climate change on gourmet coffee, and the millions of smallholders that produce it.

But a study released today is a bit different.

As well as predicting the impacts on arabica coffee in Nicaragua, it looks at what climate change will do to the one thing that matters most to buyers and consumers: flavour.

Arabica – the only coffee aficionados will raise to their lips – is prized for its palatability, acidity and complex mix of flavours. These denote high-quality, and are a direct result the way the sensitive arabica plant interacts with it environment, including of course, the prevailing climate.

But there’s a downside to this: when push comes to shove, arabica is a bit of a wimp. Even small fluctuations in temperature and rainfall can severely affect yields. In Nicaragua – a major arabica producer – climate change promises big doses of both.

But until now, scientists haven’t been sure what will happen to the flavour of those prized coffees as climate change takes hold. That’s why research published today by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) is likely to send a shiver through the gourmet coffee community.

“The cuppers were unanimous that as environmental suitability changes, Nicaragua’s arabica will lose many of its distinctive, delicate flavours.”

Peter Laderach

Climate change and coffee expert, International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)

The scientists homed in on Nicaragua’s coffee-producing departments of Estelí, Madriz and Nueva Segovia. This is where the vast majority of the country’s arabica comes from. Growing conditions for coffee in these areas range from optimal, to suitable, to marginal.

Next they harvested ripe coffee cherries from farms in each area and, in accordance with international standards, prepared a series of brews for expert coffee tasters – known as cuppers – to conduct a sensory trial. This enabled them to establish the relationship between the different environmental conditions and the coffee’s flavour and acidity.

Finally, they combined the results with predictions as to how climate change will affect growing conditions for coffee across the country.

The result is the first glimpse of what the future of arabica might taste like if climate change continues as expected. And unfortunately, it’s miserable news for farmers, buyers and consumers alike: many of Nicaragua’s best coffees are going to taste worse.

Specifically, they found that as suitability falls, acidity will also decrease. Other key characteristics like fragrance, aroma, aftertaste, body and sweetness will take a hit too.

“The cuppers were unanimous that as environmental suitability changes, Nicaragua’s arabica will lose many of its distinctive, delicate flavours,” said Peter Laderach, a CCAFS and CIAT climate change expert, who led the research.

“Previously we’ve only been able to make reasonable assumptions that climate change will affect arabica flavour because of its close correlation with environmental changes. Now we know exactly how it’s likely to be affected.”

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the scientists expect the suitability of arabica in Nicaragua to fall by up to 90%.

It means the 44,500 farming families that produce the country’s arabica can expect to produce fewer high-quality beans as a result of climate change. And it doesn’t take an expert to work out what that means for profitability.

We’re still not done.

To top it all off, the scientists suggest that similar problems could afflict arabica producers around the world. That’s bad for the 25 million smallholder farmers who produce it, but spare a thought for the poor-old hipsters who pay top-dollar to consume it too.

Thankfully it’s not all doom and gloom. The scientists say lots can be done to adapt production to the challenges ahead. But they stress that farmers, supply chains and policymakers need to move quickly. New coffee seedlings need three years before they start to produce cherries, reaching optimum production after around five to six years and continuing for another 20-30 years. In short, the planting decisions taken today will determine coffee production, quality and incomes for decades to come.

They highlight four scenarios (see box below) – largely determined by the altitude of coffee farms – that will play out in Nicaragua between now and 2050, and possible responses to protect the livelihoods of farmers.

But the bottom line is that without decisive action, climate change is likely to leave a bad taste in the mouths of arabica consumers, buyers and farmers alike.

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Options for adaptation

Firstly, and predominantly at lower altitudes, they identify areas where Arabica coffee will simply disappear. Here the scientists suggest “transformative adaptation” will be required – a shift into more suitable crops or economic activities.

Secondly (mid-altitudes) where coffee is expected to be severely – but not terminally – impacted, they suggest the introduction of more resilient Arabica varieties; grafting Arabica coffee onto Robusta rootstock; diversification into Robusta coffee; and concentration on cocoa or other tree crops.

Thirdly (mid-altitudes) in those areas that are expected to see minimal negative changes as a result of climate change, the introduction of shade crops to take the edge off the heat; better irrigation systems to offset unpredictable rains; and better on-farm management of pests, diseases and soils.

Finally, in that are currently too cool for coffee (primarily due to being at higher altitudes), climate change could enable more Arabica coffee to be grown. But the authors stress that this should only happen if it is “environmentally feasible” – many of these areas are forested or protected, providing important ecosystem services, including the regulation of carbon and water, erosion control and biodiversity and provision of water for urban areas and agriculture.

1. Further studies are required to establish the likely additional impact of pest and diseases and their interaction with coffee suitability and quality as a result of climate change.
2. For robust adaptation and mitigation planning, countries need precise, localised climate change impact assessments that cover including all economic sectors.
3. Viable business models are required to help embed climate-smart coffee production practices into the supply chain.

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This research was funded by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). CCAFS is supported by https://ccafs.cgiar.org/donors

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