A former White House chef says coffee will be ‘scarce’ soon

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Corbin Hagman.

Coffee has fueled the U.S. military since long before it needed actual fuel for vehicles. It was one of the prized commodities that made life bearable for Union troops in the Civil War (and the scarcity of which made life worse for the Confederates), and troops’ love for brewed coffee led to a new mode of preparation in World War II, the Americano. 

It’s hard to imagine coming to work in the military every day and not seeing the large, strong flagon of hot coffee, waiting, just the way the Sergeant Major or Master Chief likes it. That idea might soon be a reality, according to former White House Chef and sustainable agriculture expert Sam Kass.

Kass wasn’t just the executive chef for the Obama Administration’s most important state dinners. He also served as the president’s Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy. He now covers food trends and policy for NBC News. Kass is sounding the alarm for some of the world’s most beloved crops, and chief among them is coffee.

“A number of foods that we hold very dear to our hearts and largely take for granted are under a real threat,” Kass told People Magazine. “And you’re seeing in the future, we’re on track for a lot of those to become quite scarce and some really to be largely unavailable to most people and others just significantly increased in cost.”

Along with coffee, he says wine, chocolate, shellfish, and rice are all endangered. The world drinks two billion cups of coffee every day. He’s not alone in his concern for the world’s most beloved bean. A January 2022 study from the Institute of Natural Resource Sciences at Zurich University of Applied Sciences found that “coffee proved to be most vulnerable to climate change with negative impacts dominating all growing regions, primarily due to increasing temperatures.”

coffee scarce
Logistics Specialist 2nd Class, Felix Fernandez, from Miami, Florida, assigned to Naval Construction Group 2, positions a double pallet of coffee in a warehouse located on Naval Construction Battalion Center Gulfport, Mississippi. (U.S. Navy Photo by Religious Program Specialist Justin Robison/released)

It found the major coffee-producing countries, like Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Colombia, are all seriously affected by climate change. These countries are experiencing a significant decline in land suitable for coffee production. To mitigate the losses of suitable land, the next 30 years will be critical. Policies will have to be implemented that move production locations to areas better suited.

With this move to better production locations, other policies will have to be put in place. Some areas currently producing Arabica coffee will have to switch to the more hardy robusta variety. When new coffee fields are put in place, they will have to account for the negative environmental impacts, such as deforestation, biodiversity loss and loss of the existing ecosystem to keep the problem from getting worse. 

“Most consumers, and even many coffee sector representatives, are unaware that there are more than two or three coffee species. There are 124 coffee species known to science, occurring naturally in tropical Africa, the Indian Ocean islands (Madagascar, Comoros Islands, and Mascarene Islands), Asia, and Australasia,” says a 2019 study in the journal Science Advances. “These species have useful traits for coffee development, such as climatic tolerance, and especially drought tolerance, pest and disease resistance, low or zero caffeine content, and sensory (taste) amelioration.” 

Consumers at home can help. By choosing Fair Trade Certified coffee products they can ensure the coffee is sustainably produced. Also, buying from a B-Corp Certified company, a company that meets strict standards of social and environmental performance and accountability, will go far in keeping coffee from becoming a thing of the past. 

It may seem like an expensive pain in the wallet now, but imagine the price of coffee after 30 years of changing nothing. Coffee may soon be as scarce – and as expensive – as platinum.

“Food and agriculture is the only real opportunity that we have to sequester enough carbon on the scale that science is telling us, within the time horizon that the science is saying we have, and that’s really unique to food and agriculture,” Kass said.

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