Investing in a Caffeinated Planet – Part II

By: Nicole Kruz


[In the Part I of this series, Virginia Tech Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability alumni Nicole Kruz provided a short Coffee Basics tutorial. Next up, Nicole will discuss the connections between coffee and climate change.].

Coffee & Climate Change – Environmental Impacts

The coffee plant naturally grows in mountainous areas under the canopy of larger shade trees. Traditional coffee cultivation, which mimics this growing method, is still practiced in some areas of the world. Canopy cover is critical to the health of a forest. It blocks sun rays during the day and holds in heat at night. Removing trees to expose ground cover leads to more extreme temperature swings that are harmful to plants and animals within the ecosystem.

Beginning in the 1970s the idea of growing coffee under full sunlight was introduced. The new cultivation method was intended to help farmers increase their yields and profits. In contrast to shade-grown coffee, sun-grown coffee requires the widespread clearing of trees to achieve its objectives. This form of cultivation holds disastrous implications for natural ecosystems, contributing to air and water pollution, soil erosion, and loss of biodiversity.

Without strong action to reduce emission, climate change is projected to cut the global area suitable for coffee production by as much as 60 percent by 2050. By 2080, wild coffee, an important genetic resource for farmers, could become extinct.  ~ The Climate Institute, 2016


Unfortunately, the practice of cultivating sun-grown coffee is now the norm across the world as producers move to increase profitability and short-term yield by lowering land and labor costs. In a 2014 study published by Oxford’s BioScience, global rates of shade-grown coffee decreased from 41% to 24% between 1996 and 2010 (Bacon, 2014). Examining coffee vegetation management across countries reveals that changes in shade-cover are region-specific. For instance, in Latin America 50% of shade coffee plantations were converted to sun-grown systems during this time. Whereas South American countries, particularly Brazil and Columbia, have increased their sun-grown coffee areas by 60% (Bacon, 2014). Researchers at the University of Texas further confirmed this trend, estimating that the proportion of land used to cultivate shade-grown coffee has fallen by 20%. Incidentally, 37 of the top 50 coffee producing countries around the world have the highest deforestation rates (Lights, 2013). 

​The deforestation of lands to grow coffee is major concern for climate change because fewer forests means higher amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. As trees are felled, they released the carbon stored within them. It is estimated that the tropical forests, where coffee grows best, currently cover around “60 percent of global land that can be used for coffee production. By 2050, as much as 20 percent of the land suitable for growing coffee would fall within the boundaries of protected areas. That means that farmers will either have to produce more with less land, or start clearing new lands on which to grow” (Kaufman, 2016). 

Soil Erosion

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that in the last 150 years, the world has lost half of its topsoil, primarily as a result of unsustainable agricultural practices. The conversion of forest lands into fields and pastures for coffee production is a direct contributor to increased rates of soil erosion, which is detrimental to soil composition and leads to heightened salinity and diminished nutrient content. Its effects erodes roadways along agricultural pastures, making it more difficult for farmers to quickly move harvested crops from the field to the production room.

Soil erosion also raises the level of sedimentation in waterways, which has been shown to trigger the decline of fish stock and other aquatic species. While not a direct climate change impact per say, if deforestation of lands for coffee production continues at the present rate, there will be an increase in soil erosion over the coming decades that will have negative implications for both humans and the environment.

Habitat & Biodiversity Loss

As illustrated in the paragraphs above, coffee production can carry negative implications for the environment, if not practiced sustainably. Deforestation and fragmentation, in particular, trigger a chain reaction of soil erosion and habitat loss. Habitat loss in turn leads to biodiversity loss, as native wildlife that formerly sought refuge among the trees are forced to find new corridors and areas for migration or habitation. Smaller plants that rely on the protective shade of larger trees also struggle to adapt to changing environmental conditions brought on deforestation. Recent studies, such as the one documented by BioScience in 2014, indicate a correlation between decreasing vegetation and bird, ant, and tree biodiversity.

Mammals are similarly affected. In a 2012 article by Scientific American, author David Biello named the establishment of sun-cultivated coffee plantations (i.e., open fields stripped of their trees) as the culprit behind the decline of the black-handed spider monkey in Central America. Despite its protected status, the monkey population is declining as it faces decreased habitat brought on by deforestation (Biello, 2012). 

Diseases & Pests

 Higher temperatures and more extreme rainfall events have allowed coffee diseases and pests to spread rapidly into new areas and altitudes. Researchers at Columbia’s Center for Agricultural Bioscience International have found that coffee leaf rust, which thrives in warm weather, is now showing up at altitudes of 6,500 feet above sea level. Historically, the disease is not found above 5,000 feet. This discovery is becoming the norm across Central America, as rising temperatures expose new lands to diseases. In response to more frequent instances of disease and pest outbreaks, farmers are increasingly turning to the use of fungicides and pesticides, which will present additional environmental and human health hazards. 

Drought & Water Scarcity

As noted in the Coffee Basics section of this series, Arabica coffee is a finicky crop, making it extremely susceptible to climate change. With increasing temperatures and erratic rainfalls, more and more Arabica trees are wilting away or falling victim to coffee rust disease. In recent years, drought has stricken several coffee producing countries – some for multiple years in a row – from Uganda and Ethiopia to Brazil and Guatemala. In certain countries, conditions are so bad that producers have lost between 50 – 90% of their crops (Kaufman, 2016).  

As a result of these changes, countries have begun switching gears, opting to plant the Robusta species of coffee instead of the Arabica species. In Nicaragua, this shift is government sanctioned. Able to tolerate hotter temperatures and climate change induced drought, Robusta coffee is widely regarded to be “of lower quality, fetching a lower price” on global markets (Rios, 2017). Economic stakes for the industry are high, because coffee production generates billions in export revenues annually and employs literally thousands of workers.


[In Part III of this series, available November 16th,Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability alumni Nicole Kruz will discuss the the social impacts of coffee and climate change.]

Literature Cited:
  • Bacon, CM, S Jha, E Mendez, et al. 2014. Shade coffee: Update on a disappearing refuge for biodiversity. BioScience, 64(5).
  • Biello, D. 2012. My morning cup of coffee kills monkeys. Accessed August 7, 2017:
  • The Climate Institute. 2016. A brewing storm: The climate change risks to coffee. Accessed August 7, 2017:
  • Kaufman, AC. 2016. Our coffee addiction could destroy Earth’s tropical forests. Accessed August 8, 2017:
  • Lights, Z. 2013. Coffee and its impacts on people, animals, and the planet. Accessed August 7, 2017:
  • Rios, J. 2017. Nicaragua focuses on climate-change resistant coffee. Accessed August 8, 2017: