Ars Technica has ripped yet another post from a rich vein of clickbait: “Coffee vs. climate change: The news is not good.” It breathlessly reports on a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:
This is serious: climate change could put your caffeine supply at risk. … A new analysis suggests that climate change on its own could cause coffee producing areas in the Americas to drop production by roughly 80 percent.
Ah yes, it’s the Great Coffee Shortage, back again to terrorize the bleary-eyed denizens of the Internet! This dead horse has been flogged by the media almost every month for years:
- The CBC: “Coffee beans in danger of extinction.” (November 2012)
- Eater.com: “Will the World Run Out of Coffee by 2080?” (March 2015)
- Bloomberg: “Global Coffee Shortage Looms as Market Braces for Climate Change” (October 2015)
- Science Alert: “It Looks Like a Worldwide Coffee Shortage Is Inevitable” (December 2015)
- Fox News: “Coffee is cheaper, but a crisis looms and could hit in three years” (January 2016)
- Business Insider: “A coffee shortage is looming — here’s how soon it could be extinct” (August 2016)
- The Telegraph: “‘Coffee could be extinct by 2080’” (September 2016)
- NPR: “Coffee And Climate Change: In Brazil, A Disaster Is Brewing” (October 2016)
- The Epoch Times: “The Looming Coffee Shortage” (January 2017)
Yadda yadda. You get the idea. I took a wack that this story back in 2015, but, like millions of Americans before their first cup, it is a zombie.
So, is climate change killing coffee? Outside of panicky headlines, there is zero indication that that’s happening. And, remarkably, hardly any of the journalists reporting on this claim have bothered to look.
If it were true that coffee is being decimated by climate change or in danger of extinction, what else would be true?
Well, we might expect to see (1) declining coffee production, (2) declining yields (output per acre), or (3) rising prices.
But we don’t. Global coffee production has been rising steadily for more than 50 years, roughly doubling since the 1960s.
Maybe it is getting harder to grow coffee, and we have only managed to increase output by planting more land?
Nope. Total coffee acreage has been relatively flat for the last half century, while coffee output has soared.
How is that possible? Because, contrary to the doom and gloom headlines, we are getting better at growing coffee.
Coffee yields (output per hectare) have nearly doubled since the 1960s. We grow almost twice as much coffee on almost the same amount of land.
And this surge in yields has happened at the same time that the climate has been warming.
Okay, okay, sure — there’s no sign of it in the data yet… but maybe we’re about to take a massive hit to coffee production that will drive the price sky high, and only billionaires will be able afford a second cup in the morning.
If so, nobody seems to have told the coffee traders. Coffee prices are near a ten-year low.
And there’s no long-term trend towards more expensive coffee, either: coffee futures prices are about their historical average.
And somehow the investors of Starbucks Corp. aren’t freaking out about the looming extinction of their business.
I’m not playing Pollyanna to Cassandra here. I’m not saying climate change is a good thing. I’m not even saying that climate change won’t present challenges for coffee farmers in the future — as long as global and regional climates are changing, of course industries will have to adapt.
But it’s ridiculous to go around prophesying the imminent doom of an industry (based on papers written by non-economists and non-specialists) without even attempting to square that prediction with the observable reality of that sector.
And the reality is this: the coffee industry (as shown by prices, production, and yield rates) is quite healthy. If you think it’s actually on its deathbed, you have to explain why that data doesn’t matter and what everyone with a financial stake in it is missing. It’s bad journalism to report on the demise of coffee without even mentioning that production and yields are at all time highs — and coffee futures prices aren’t.
Still, if you think, contrary to all observable evidence, coffee is going extinct, there will be massive shortages, or production is going to plummet 80%, send me an email with a specific, measurable prediction and let’s bet on it. (I’ll update this if there are any takers.)