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Starbucks aims to protect future of coffee with climate-resistant trees

By Renata Geraldo, The Seattle Times
Published: October 1, 2023, 6:01am
3 Photos
Sada VanQuekelberg makes a drink at a Starbucks retail location, Wednesday, June 28, 2023, in Seattle.
Sada VanQuekelberg makes a drink at a Starbucks retail location, Wednesday, June 28, 2023, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson) Photo Gallery

Another climate change problem is brewing: the future of coffee.

For years, researchers have warned of the impact of higher temperatures on coffee yields and farmer livelihoods globally. Seattle-based Starbucks, among other coffee companies, has taken note.

Starbucks announced Tuesday it has developed six new climate-change-resistant tree varietals, all of which produce Arabica — a type of bean that is threatened by climate change. The new tree seeds, developed by agronomists at Starbucks’ Costa Rica farm Hacienda Alsacia, are resistant to coffee leaf rust, a disease exacerbated by climate change.

“We put our efforts up against the development of climate-resistant trees,” said Michelle Burns, Starbucks’ executive vice president of global coffee, social impact and sustainability. “Very specifically, developing new tree varietals in a way that ensures that they are more resistant to the impact of climate.”

The new tree breeds are part of a Starbucks initiative that began five years ago to distribute climate-resistant tree seeds to suppliers and farms. The company declined to state the cost of the initiative or of the development of the new breeds but said it has distributed more than 3 million seeds to date.

The announcement comes during Starbucks’ first Global Coffee Week, which runs through Sunday and includes announcements about sustainability goals, such as the new tree varietals, in-store coffee tastings and new coffee blends.

“As we look to the future, it’s our responsibility to build a more sustainable, equitable and resilient future for coffee, our communities and our planet,” Laxman Narasimhan, Starbucks CEO, said in a statement. “We’re proud to dedicate this week to sharing this global vision.”

Climate change is the biggest long-term threat to coffee, according to World Coffee Research, a research and development agricultural nonprofit. The key impacts on coffee from climate change, according to WCR, will vary by region. But overall, farmers will have lower yields, coffee will have reduced quality and farmers will be more economically vulnerable.

“We are starting from behind because so little investment has been made in agricultural research for coffee compared with the massive global value of the crop,” according to the WCR.

The estimated cost for research and development will be $452 million per year over and above current investment levels, a 2023 WCR report stated. Starbucks is a WCR member.

Threats and solutions

Starbucks only buys Arabica coffee beans from the Coffee Belt — the region between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, including Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Indonesia, China, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, Thailand and India.

Arabica is at risk of extinction by 2080 because of climate change, according to Aaron Davis, senior research leader of plant resources at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the United Kingdom.

Rust and longer droughts are among the threats to Arabica, according to Davis.

In an interview, he said that with the current rate of climate change, new crop plants will need to be more climate tolerant.

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“These new plants will need to be developed to withstand projected changes in temperature, rainfall and climate variability across this century,” Davis said. “That’s quite a challenge.”

“There are three main pathways for coffee farming to adapt to climate change,” according to Davis’ research. “One is relocating coffee farms to areas with suitable climates, two is changing coffee farming practices and three is developing new coffee crop plants.”

“Number three is likely to be the least disruptive, the most cost-effective and probably the most successful,” his 2022 article stated. “The idea of broadening the coffee crop portfolio, with new cultivars, hybrids and alternative species (including underutilized crop species) is receiving renewed attention.”

One of the new coffee crop plants he mentioned is the Liberica varietal being explored in Uganda. Starbucks is among other companies that have announced new breeds. In 2021, Nestle announced new low-carbon coffee varieties of Robusta beans that would increase yields up to 50%.

According to a Starbucks catalog, the six new Arabica breeds will be ideal for different localities. The plants are suitable for places with temperatures ranging from 22 to 26 degrees Celsius (approximately 72 to 79 degrees Fahrenheit), and that receive between 1,000 and 3,000 millimeters in precipitation annually. At Hacienda Alsacia, Starbucks’ global agronomy headquarters, the temperature range is between 24 and 26 degrees Celsius (approximately 76 to 79 degrees Fahrenheit), while the rainfall is between 1,600 and 1,800 millimeters per year.

Starbucks’ tree seeds can be distributed to any Arabica farmers around the world, although the six varietals are better suited for Latin America, Burns said.

The primary resistance of the new Starbucks trees will be against coffee leaf rust. In general, the rust is enabled by warmer and wetter weather, according to WCR, and “can cause dramatical losses on a farm.”

“Meeting these challenges will require clear vision, a broad range of interventions and good governance,” Davis wrote. “Wild variants of Arabica and robusta will be of primary importance, but other wild coffee species [crop wild relatives] are likely to be required.”

Starbucks executive Burns said the six varietals are part of the company’s efforts to have carbon-neutral coffee by 2030. The coffee giant has also been executing a 10-year, 100-million tree initiative in El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico that will run until 2025 and has so far distributed 70 million climate-resistant trees to farmers globally

“The timing is now to keep talking about this,” Burns said about sustainability.