Hundreds of thousands of hectares of coffee production have been wiped out this year by extreme weather and climate-related plagues. All coffee lovers around the world will pay the price. Coffee futures have jumped nearly 90% in 2021, and once cheaper stocks run out, analysts expect retail prices to skyrocket in 2022. No one should be surprised.
Humanity consumes half a trillion cups of caffeinated infusion each year – almost double the number ten years ago – yet coffee production is one of the most archaic industries in all of agriculture. There hasn’t been a major effort to develop a new variety of coffee bean in half a century, and we are now seeing the consequences: a crop that simply cannot survive any longer in our changing climate.
The good news is that increasing climate pressures are spurring a movement to modernize coffee production. The two main species of coffee trees cultivated today in the “Bean Belt” of the world are robusta and arabica, the latter being the tastier and more coveted of the two. Most modern varieties of Arabica were developed in 1967 by the Portuguese government. Decades later, this aging crop succumbs to modern plagues like the coffee rust fungus and bark beetles, as well as fluctuating heat and humidity levels.
“Current varieties of coffee are not optimized for current conditions,” said Vern Long, managing director of World Coffee Research, an industry group funded by major roasters. “It’s a crop health crisis. Imagine if the last time vaccines were worked on was in 1967. “
World Coffee Research is launching a global breeding network in 2022 to encourage the development of larger and more diverse coffee varieties. New biotech startups are also using Crispr and other gene editing tools to jumpstart the long-awaited evolution of this crop, whose genome was first sequenced in 2017.
Investors and policymakers must support significant changes in coffee production to sustain our supply, and not just in coffee-producing countries – coffee-consuming countries must join in the effort as well. The survival of the world’s 12 million small-scale coffee producers – and mega-roasters like Starbucks who depend on their products – will require a blend of traditional and sustainable farming methods and radically new technologies like Crispr to foster climate resilience. Regulators will need to create space for these changes, and consumers of oat milk lattes and cold nitro beers will need to learn to accept them, along with higher prices.
Faster and more agile breeding methods will play a vital role in saving crops vulnerable to climate for one key reason: time. Rather than taking a decade or more with conventional breeding methods, gene editing tools can produce new varieties of coffee plants in two to three years.
For context, there are thousands of different varieties of corn and prized foods such as strawberries that have been developed around the world over the years, each adapted to different growing conditions and resistant to pests and diseases. individuals. Still, there are only a few dozen varieties of Arabica coffee, known as the finicky ‘golden buckle crop’ that requires just the right amount of rainfall and specific, mild temperatures to thrive, with some differences in temperature. separate heat between day and night to develop quality and flavor.
Beyond its growing challenges, coffee involves a dizzyingly complex supply chain for harvesting, drying, fermenting, storing and importing beans before they are roasted and brewed. For centuries, wealthy consumers in the north have consumed coffee produced by much less wealthy farmers in the south, who receive a tiny fraction of the value of your $ 6 triple latte – one of the many reasons why. which coffee production has been so slow to modernize.
Adding to the problem: Coffee trees typically produce cherries (the seeds of which are called “beans”) for 25 to 30 years, so it can take decades for farmers to introduce new breeds of plants.
World Coffee Research focuses on the accepted conventional “marker-assisted” breeding methods that take at least 12 years to produce new varieties. Conventional methods are much cheaper and more affordable for economically stressed coffee farmers – many of whom give up growing coffee altogether as the crop becomes more difficult to grow. They also face fewer regulatory hurdles than Crispr. But climate pressures are becoming so severe that the industry may not have much time to adapt.
Faster progress could come from biotech startups: A UK-based company, Tropic Biosciences, developed a decaffeinated coffee bean using Crispr to extract the caffeine gene. CEO Gilad Gershon told me he sees the product, which could be on the market in a few years, as a “gateway to greater opportunities” for breeding climate-resilient coffee varieties that his team is already developing. developing. Food production in general, from vineyards and maple groves to almond orchards and tomato farms, has been hit hard by climate change this year. The coffee-growing regions of Brazil and Colombia, in particular, have suffered from climatic shocks.
This should speed up the acceptance of genetically modified foods, and indeed, markets are starting to open up in some parts of the world: A Crispr tomato was released in Japan this fall, a Crispr strawberry is coming to the US in labs soon. , Crispr was used to create heat resistant cattle, pest resistant wine grapes, and drought resistant soybeans and corn. The Bottom Line: Crispr java in your cup can be almost inevitable. Regulators and consumers – especially in Europe – have naturally been wary of the genetic modification of our food. But if they want to secure the future of coffee, they may have to accept the benefits.
Many other new technologies have come into play and deserve the support of investors: the startup Cropster has developed software connecting small farmers directly to roasters to streamline the supply chain. Demetria has developed an artificial intelligence-based application that helps producers assess and manage grain quality. Scientists in Finland have developed a bean-free, laboratory-grown coffee that could provide an alternative supply.
All efforts to modernize coffee production are important, but the selection of new grape varieties is the most immediate challenge to preserve our supply. I shudder at the thought of what would happen to the economic productivity of my own household, let alone our national GDP, if the black roast were to fail.
Amanda Little, professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University, is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
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