By JUSTIN WORLAND/ALAJUELA, COSTA RICA June 21, 2018
Howard Schultz wants to know if I drink coffee. The Starbucks boss is sitting on a balcony overlooking the company’s leafy farm in the Costa Rican province of Alajuela, where I’m told the coffee–harvested and roasted on-site–is a must-try. Like more than 60% of Americans, I drink coffee at least once a day, and sometimes I indulge twice or even three times. The Costa Rican blend Schultz pours me has a special taste that mixes citrus and chocolate flavors.
But the future of my cup of Costa Rican Arabica is not guaranteed, Schultz says. After nearly four decades at Starbucks, he is leaving at the end of June, and in the role of executive chairman for almost 15 months, he has been looking past Starbucks’ day-to-day operations to its long-term challenges and opportunities. Climate change ranks high among them. As temperatures rise and droughts intensify, good coffee will become increasingly difficult to grow and expensive to buy. Since governments are reacting slowly to the problem, companies like Starbucks have stepped in to save themselves, reaching to the bottom of their supply chains to ensure reliable access to their product. “Make no mistake,” Schultz tells me, “climate change is going to play a bigger role in affecting the quality and integrity of coffee.”
This farm, with its verdant vistas and a trickling waterfall, seems far removed from the rising sea levels, blistering heat and destructive storms that characterize climate change. But global warming is exactly why Starbucks bought the 600-acre plot in 2013, and why Schultz makes the 3,500-mile trip from Seattle a few times a year as he has done on this March day. The farm is Starbucks’ field laboratory into the threats posed to coffee by climate change and its testing facility for how it can adapt to the challenge. Schultz hopes that the research here will inform agricultural practices for millions of farmers across the globe, including the ones that supply the company. “We have to be in the soil, growing coffee, to understand firsthand how to rectify and fix the situation,” he says.
Study after study has laid out the threat climate change poses to the coffee industry. Rising temperatures will bring drought, increase the range of diseases and kill large swaths of the insects that pollinate coffee plants. About half of the land around the world currently used to produce high-quality coffee could be unproductive by 2050, according to a recent study in the journal Climatic Change. Another paper, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that that number could be as high as 88% in Latin America.
Not that the industry sees a choice. Declining supplies and a growing coffee-drinking population mean climate change could turn a daily pick-me-up into a high-priced luxury, threatening the continued growth of the industry’s customer base. Addressing that challenge was an important facet of Schultz’s job in his final years at Starbucks. “It’s not only about the environment,” he says of his work on climate change. “It’s also to procure high-quality coffee, to get the best possible yield, at the best possible price.”