BUSINESS + ECONOMY

Coffee is in danger. Starbucks is working on solutions

Oct 3, 2023, 10:55 AM

Starbucks director of global agronomy, Carlos Mario Rodriguez at the Hacienda Alsacia coffee farm.
...

Starbucks director of global agronomy, Carlos Mario Rodriguez at the Hacienda Alsacia coffee farm. (Credit: Joshua Trujillo/Starbucks)

(Credit: Joshua Trujillo/Starbucks)

New York (CNN) — Coffee is a finicky crop — arabica coffee, the most popular variety, in particular. And climate change poses a huge threat to the coffee business and to farmers.

“To grow properly, coffee crops require specific temperature, light and humidity levels,” according to the Inter-American Development Bank, a financial institution serving Latin America and the Caribbean. Currently, those conditions are largely met in certain parts of Latin America, within a region called the coffee belt, a recent IADB report noted.

But by 2050, the bank warned, “rising temperatures will reduce the area suitable for growing coffee by up to 50%.” The changing climate could mean that some countries could newly accommodate coffee, IADB noted.

But for coffee to keep thriving where it is now, things have to change.

So Starbucks, which says it purchases about 3% of all the world’s coffee, is developing new arabica varietals that are specifically cultivated to hold up better on a warming planet. For more than 10 years, agronomists at Starbucks have been breeding different types of coffee trees, trying to find ones that will yield a high amount of fruit in a relatively short amount of time and, among other things, resist coffee leaf rust, a disease that attacks coffee trees and is exacerbated by climate change.

After pairing hundreds of varieties, the company has landed on six that fit the bill and meet the company’s standards for taste and flavor. A catalog describing Starbucks’ six new varieties is available to farmers at the company’s Hacienda Alsacia coffee farm, an educational and research center in Costa Rica.

The catalog lists the flavor profile for each plant. One makes coffee with notes of melon, honey and sugar cane, while another boasts a citrus, herbal, floral flavor. The catalog also outlines the plant’s growing characteristics, like the altitudes at which it will survive, the plant’s size and structure, and how many years it will take until first production.

“Some of the varietals that we’re working with and testing are seeing their harvest in [a] two-year cycle,” instead of three or four years, said Michelle Burns, executive vice president of global coffee, social impact and sustainability for Starbucks. If all goes well, that means more coffee more quickly, a win for Starbucks and its suppliers.

Climate comes for coffee

Starbucks, with nearly 36,000 locations across the globe is heavily reliant on farmers — it buys from about 400,000 farmers across 30 countries. They, along with other coffee farmers across the globe, are struggling to adapt to global warming.

Climate change has had a big impact on Suzanne Shriner, president of Lions Gate Farms in Hawaii, which isn’t a Starbucks supplier.

“Our rainfalls [have] become more intermittent, and when they come, they’re more severe, which is hard on the plants,” she said.

In Hawaii, Shriner said, farmers are working with World Coffee Research, a nonprofit that partners with the industry, including Starbucks, to to come up with a solution to coffee leaf rust, which has become a serious problem in the region.

“We’re looking for similar breeding innovations,” she said, “we’re watching the Starbucks program closely.”

Coffee is not the only crop threatened by climate change, of course. Drought, freeze or heavy rains can devastate yields across agricultural products from cocoa to grapes. And extreme weather is unpredictable, making it difficult for farmers to plan for these changes effectively.

But arabica coffee, the only variety used by Starbucks, is especially at risk.

Starbucks has been working on developing new coffee varietals.
(Credit: Joshua Trujillo/Starbucks)

Fighting leaf rust

With arabica coffee, there is an “urgent need” to develop more climate-resistant varieties, said Miguel Gomez, a food marketing professor at Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

Current arabica plants “are not resistant to water stresses,” he said. “They tend to be more susceptible to diseases like leaf rust … that are present whenever you have unusually high temperatures.”

A coffee rust-resistant tree may be an attractive option for farmers. But it’s not going to fix the many problems posed by climate change, warned Monika Firl, senior advisor for Fairtrade International’s coffee program.

“No silver bullet is going to fix climate change for farmers,” she said.

Nature “adapts faster than the laboratory science does,” she added. Breeds that are optimized to thrive in certain conditions might falter in others — and so a solution might work for now, but not in the long term.

Firl thinks that in order for coffee to be sustainable, there needs to be a shift away from the industrialized coffee farm model. “We need to bring coffee back to its forest roots,” she said, to promote a healthy ecosystem.

In 2021, Starbucks made a commitment to invest in in forest protection and restoration, and set other climate-related goals. Burns described the company’s breeding program as an “ongoing” process, saying the company will keep trying out new varietals to adapt to climate change.

Other coffee varieties, like robusta and liberica, hold up better than arabica in these difficult conditions. But coffee makers tend to avoid these varieties because consumers like how arabica tastes and smells, Cornell’s Gomez noted. The goal is to develop varieties that taste like arabica but are more resilient, like other varieties.

Securing the coffee supply chain

In its most recent annual report, Starbucks pointed to “increases in the cost of high-quality arabica coffee beans… or decreases in the availability of high-quality arabica coffee beans,” as a supply chain risk that could have “an adverse impact on our business and financial results.”

It pointed to a number of factors that can affect coffee prices and supply. Bad weather, decreased water availability and crop diseases, among other problems, can all make coffee more expensive for Starbucks to buy, or limit supply altogether. “Climate change may further exacerbate many of these factors,” the report warned.

Even before Starbucks developed its own climate-resistant varieties, it had been offering climate-resistant seeds developed by others (and sometimes tweaked by Starbucks) to farmers.

Overall, it has given away three million seeds over the past five years, according to the company. In addition to the seeds, Starbucks has distributed about 70 million coffee rust resistant trees to farmers, as part of its goal to give out 100 million trees by 2025.

Related: BYU researchers introduce drought-resistant quinoa as nations face food challenges

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Business + Economy

Rural wildlife firefighters, "Hot Shots"...

Michael Camit

Utah is struggling to retain its rural ‘Hotshots’

Filling jobs of rural wildlife firefighters can be difficult due to the cost of living according to the Utah Division of Forestry, Fires and State Lands.

20 hours ago

A car is filled at a gas pump in Sandy on Tuesday, March 19, 2024....

Adam Small

Experts predict record number of drivers, lower Memorial Day gas prices

Experts have predicted that 43.8 million people will travel this weekend. They could experience lower gas prices.

21 hours ago

People skate at Millcreek Common in Millcreek on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. The New Americans Internatio...

Eric Cabrera

New Americans International Market offers space for newly settled Americans to share culture and connect

The New Americans International Market at Millcreek Common is helping new refugees and immigrants connect with the community.

4 days ago

A customer checks prices while shopping at a grocery store in Wheeling, Ill., Friday, Jan. 19, 2024...

Curt Gresseth

Inflation eases but grocery store prices in Utah still stinging

Inflation eases slightly in April, but in Utah, consumers are still feeling the pinch of grocery-store prices.

5 days ago

FILE - A street sign is seen in front of the New York Stock Exchange June 14, 2022. The U.S. stock ...

Simone Seikaly

LISTEN: Utah analyst on stock market highs

Stock market investors are reportedly energized by a report showing inflation is cooling somewhat across the U.S.

6 days ago

An EV charging in Salt Lake City. SLC, like many cities around the United States, lacks the chargin...

Alexandrea Bonilla

EV charging is lacking in Salt Lake City

Only about 1.6% of Salt Lake City listings are EV friendly. That makes homes with electric vehicle chargers a hot commodity.

6 days ago

Sponsored Articles

a doctor putting her hand on the chest of her patient...

Intermountain Health

Intermountain nurse-midwives launch new gynecology access clinic

An access clinic launched by Intermountain nurse-midwives provides women with comprehensive gynecology care.

Young couple hugging while a realtor in a suit hands them keys in a new home...

Utah Association of Realtors

Buying a home this spring? Avoid these 5 costly pitfalls

By avoiding these pitfalls when buying a home this spring, you can ensure your investment will be long-lasting and secure.

a person dressed up as a nordic viking in a dragon boat resembling the bear lake monster...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

The Legend of the Bear Lake Monster

The Bear Lake monster has captivated people in the region for centuries, with tales that range from the believable to the bizarre.

...

Live Nation Concerts

All the artists coming to Utah First Credit Union Amphitheatre (formerly USANA Amp) this summer

Summer concerts are more than just entertainment; they’re a celebration of life, love, and connection.

Mother and cute toddler child in a little fancy wooden cottage, reading a book, drinking tea and en...

Visit Bear Lake

How to find the best winter lodging in Bear Lake, Utah

Winter lodging in Bear Lake can be more limited than in the summer, but with some careful planning you can easily book your next winter trip.

Happy family in winter clothing at the ski resort, winter time, watching at mountains in front of t...

Visit Bear Lake

Ski more for less: Affordable ski resorts near Bear Lake, Utah

Plan your perfect ski getaway in Bear Lake this winter, with pristine slopes, affordable tickets, and breathtaking scenery.

Coffee is in danger. Starbucks is working on solutions