As Consumer Prices Rise, Coffee is Canary in the Climate Change Coal Mine | Opinion

Consumers are paying more for almost everything these days, and our grocery store bills are one area where we're being hit the hardest. Food and beverage prices have risen dramatically in the U.S. and around the world, with COVID-19, supply chain and labor shortages, the conflict in Ukraine and rising fuel costs receiving most of the blame.

One important driver of rising food prices is getting lost in the conversation—and it's important that we pay attention because things will only get much worse. Agriculture produces almost everything we eat and drink, and because it is wholly reliant on the weather, it is one of the most sensitive sectors in our entire global economy to climate change. Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, and every new season brings greater risks that disaster will strike a significant producing area of some crop, somewhere.

In fact, while the news cycle mostly looked away, one global market was hammered by extreme weather last year and resulting production shortages are now driving substantially higher prices. In 2021, both frost and drought struck coffee crops in Brazil, the world's largest exporter, with losses estimated around 10 million bags, equivalent to more than a third of annual U.S. coffee purchases. U.S. consumer coffee prices are now at a nine-year high, and the shortage isn't going away any time soon. In addition to weather extremes, climate change is fueling pests and disease damage, such as coffee leaf rust, which wreaked havoc across Latin America in the past decade and is now hitting crops in Hawaii.

The Human Toll of Climate Change

While many crops are affected by climate change, coffee has been among the first markets to feel its impact globally. A number of factors make coffee ultra-sensitive to climate change: It is cultivated in tropical regions where temperatures are rising and rainfall is becoming more erratic, it is primarily grown by smallholder farmers who have less access to resources to help them adapt and agricultural research spending on coffee lags behind many other crops with similar economic impact, leaving farmers with fewer climate-smart tools at their disposal.

A farmer picks up bays
A farmer picks up bays from coffee trees in Kenya. TONY KARUMBA/AFP via Getty Images

All of this means more than higher prices for consumers—it also takes a devastating toll for those at the other end of the supply chain least able to cope. About 60 percent of global coffee volume is grown by smallholders, and around the world, over 100 million people rely on coffee for their living. One recent study found that cash crops like coffee will be drastically less suitable for production regions of Asia, Africa and Latin America by 2050, which may force farmers to shift to less profitable crops or migrate to other countries, including the U.S. Many smallholders already live a precarious existence, and climate change will push millions more into hunger and poverty.

Turmoil in the coffee market also serves as a harbinger of what's to come. According to multiple projection models, average global yields for corn, a major staple food crop, may decline as much as 24 percent by the end of the century. The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently said that climate extremes will take a toll on all manner of crops and displace as many as 143 million people. African nations will suffer some of the most extreme inequities, even though the continent bears little blame for climate change, contributing less than 3 percent of emissions worldwide.

Agricultural Research Investments Are Critical

Government leaders need to act to prevent food crises and more significant price inflation. This year, Congress is discussing reauthorization of the Global Food Security Act (GFSA), a law first passed in 2016 that supports U.S. programs to reduce global hunger, increase smallholder productivity and strengthen local food systems. Programs supported by the GFSA have already enabled millions of people to transition out of poverty, helping countries move from aid to trade. Studies show that countries with stronger agricultural systems are better able to withstand shocks. In 2015, Ethiopia averted a famine in the face of historic drought, in part because of prior investments in agricultural innovations and infrastructure.

GFSA discussions now offer a timely opportunity to increase public investment in agricultural research to help farmers adapt to climate threats. In spite of current challenges, U.S. public spending on agricultural research has actually declined in real dollars since 2003, while investments in other forms of research increased. Public research funding is vital, as private sector research and development (R&D) investments in low income countries remain nascent, and agricultural systems today must address broader social, economic and environmental issues to be sustainable, such as food safety and water use efficiency.

In the coffee market, roughly 12.5 million farmers contribute to global supply, yet the pipeline of innovation to support their success is very limited. Although coffee is primarily grown outside the U.S., it has a large economic impact and must be included in domestic research agendas and international development programs. Americans consume 400 million cups of coffee per day, and the industry contributes 1.6 million jobs and $225 billion to the U.S. economy annually, which include thousands of small roasting businesses and local coffee shops across all U.S. states.

Over the past few years, COVID-19, climate events and new political conflicts have demonstrated that global shocks are becoming the new normal. Agricultural industries like coffee need a strong pipeline of innovations to reduce risk. Deepening investments in agricultural R&D must be part of our government's urgent policy response. By passing bills like the GFSA and the Coffee Plant Health Initiative Amendments Act, which supports research on coffee pests and diseases, Congress can tackle inflation for U.S. consumers, support American businesses and help vulnerable farmers around the world—ensuring that our food systems can stand up to the climate challenges that have already arrived.

J. Vern Long is the chief executive officer of World Coffee Research, a global industry-driven organization focused on innovation for coffee agriculture. She previously led the Office of Agricultural Research & Policy at USAID in the Bureau for Food Security and holds a Ph.D. in plant breeding from Cornell University.

Rose Barbuto is a senior policy adviser at Farm Journal Foundation, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. that works to advance agricultural research and innovation. She previously worked for several United Nations agencies, including the World Food Program, as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Congress.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.