Profits of high-end coffee chains like Starbucks and Green Mountain have been eroded. Coffee futures of Arabica, the high-end bean that comes predominantly from Latin America, have risen more than 85 percent since last June, to $2.95 a pound, partly over concerns about supply, extreme weather and future quality, said George Kopp, an analyst at the International Futures Group in Chicago.
Yet as stockpiles of some of the best coffee beans shrink, global demand is soaring as the rising middle classes of emerging economies like Brazil, India and China develop the coffee habit.
“Coffee production is under threat from global warming, and the outlook for Arabica in particular is not good,” said Peter Baker, a coffee specialist with CABI, a research group in Britain that focuses on agriculture and the environment, noting that climate changes, including heavy rains and droughts, have harmed crops across many parts of Central and South America.
A top coffee scientist, he has rattled trade forums by warning, Cassandra-like, of the possibility of “peak coffee,” meaning that, like oil supplies, coffee supplies might be headed for an inexorable decline unless growers make more concerted efforts to expand production globally.
The Specialty Coffee Association of America warned this year, “It is not too far-fetched to begin questioning the very existence of specialty coffee.”
Arabica and Robusta coffee account for virtually all consumption. With its more delicate taste and lower caffeine content, Arabica is more popular and more expensive, though generally more finicky in its weather needs. Robusta production dominates in Asia and Africa.
Colombia is the No. 2 Arabica exporter after Brazil, where production is centered on larger, more mechanized farms and continues to grow.
The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation says high fertilizer prices have also dented yields. But it agrees with a 2009 report from the International Coffee Organization that concluded, “Climatic variability is the main factor responsible for changes in coffee yields all over the world.”
Average temperatures in Colombia’s coffee regions have risen nearly one degree in 30 years, and in some mountain areas the increase has been double that, says Cenicafé, the national coffee research center. Rain in this area was more than 25 percent above average in the last few years.
At the new, higher temperatures, the plants’ buds abort or their fruit ripens too quickly for optimum quality. Heat also brings pests like coffee rust, a devastating fungus that could not survive the previously cool mountain weather. The heavy rains damage the fragile Arabica blossoms, and the two-week dry spells that prompt the plant to flower and produce beans occur less often, farmers say. Arabica beans take about seven months to mature.
“Half a degree can make a big difference for coffee — it is adapted to a very specific zone,” said Néstor Riaño, a specialist in agroclimatology for Cenicafé. “If temperature rises even a bit, the growth is affected, and the plagues and diseases rise.”
While climate scientists agree that the increase in temperature is a clear signal of global warming and high ocean temperatures are generally associated with more frequent storms, scientists are uncertain whether the peculiar weather patterns in the area are directly related to warming, said Stephen E. Zebiak, director general of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University.