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In Our Own Backyard: The Coffee Connection

Kay Bolden | 9/13/2017, 3:41 p.m.
If the tidal wave of hurricanes, tropical storms and tornadoes hasn’t changed your perspective about climate change, here’s something closer ...

If the tidal wave of hurricanes, tropical storms and tornadoes hasn’t changed your perspective about climate change, here’s something closer to home: a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says it has measured the impact of climate change on both coffee and insects that pollinate plants—like bees.

The researchers projected that by 2050, climate change could reduce the amount of ground usable to grow coffee in Latin America by up to 88 percent—far more than anticipated.

How is that possible? Here’s how:

Bees play a significant role in 20 to 25 percent of coffee production. They increase the coffee plants’ yield, and they make the bean size more uniform and standard, which improves the growers’ abilities to sell to global markets.

Because of the bees’ pollination expertise—expertise farmers can’t replicate with chemicals-- coffee growers can depend on standard size, weight, yield and quality.

Bee species have different heat tolerances. As the planet warms up, soil suitable for growing coffee will shrink in some areas (Nicaragua and Honduras for example). Based on current models, scientists project that some bees will not follow the coffee plants into warmer areas, which will sharply reduce yield.

So my daily Mocha Latte fix may become way more expensive—but that’s just the tip of the economic iceberg. Coffee is grown by millions of people on small farms in rural areas, many in developing nations. When the bees are gone and the coffee plants are reduced, what will these small farmers grow to make an income? Will they switch to a cash crop, like opium?

The economic fallout from climate change will impact us sooner than the weather fallout. The sheer cost of emergency response and rebuilding after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are already expected to be over $300 billion. (Yes, billions.) The island nation of Barbuda may never be habitable again. The millions in lost wages and savings may not be calculable.

Wouldn’t it be better to get our heads out of the sand now, while we still can?

Kay Bolden is an author, Times Weekly blogger, youth advocate, community activist and urban farmer on Joliet’s southeast side. She’d love to hear your thoughts on sustainable living, economic justice, and how we can all live together on the only planet we’ve got. Follow her on Twitter @KayBolden or drop her a line at Kay@KayBolden.com.