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Starbucks Developing Climate-Resistant Coffee Tree Varietals

The coffee giant has developed six new varieties of Arabica beans that can better withstand some of the worsening effects of climate change – particularly, diseases such as coffee rust.

As we say goodbye to the hottest summer on record and work to recover from the latest floods, wildfires and other devastating climate-fueled disasters while bracing for more, commodity farmers are feeling the effects of climate change on a daily basis — as their livelihoods are threatened by drought, pests, crop diseases, increased temperatures and extreme weather events like never before.

A critical part of climate-proofing our global food system will be diversification; and the growing effort to do so is happening in a variety of forms — including efforts to increase the popularity of alternatives to global staple foods; developing drought-resistant varieties of staple crops such as beans; and even developing less climate-vulnerable versions to our favorite foods — including animal-free dairy, meat and seafood; vegan honey, bean-less coffee and cacao-free chocolate.

Starbucks announced today it is taking action in the name of coffee lovers everywhere by creating six new, climate-resistant coffee tree varietals — all of which produce Arabica, one of the two most popular beans (along with Robusta), which are particularly vulnerable to climate change — and giving them away for free to farmers around the world. Developed over a decade of research and testing by the Starbucks agronomy team, the company says the new varietals are naturally resistant to diseases such as coffee leaf rust and some impacts of climate change, while also delivering excellent taste and high yield.

The work is part of Starbucks' broader effort to deliver carbon-neutral green coffee by 2030.

The varietals were developed at Hacienda Alsacia, Starbucks global research and development facility and farm in Costa Rica, where the company’s agronomy team’s primary focus is to better understand the challenges coffee farmers face and promote sustainable models of farm management. Since 2005, Starbucks agronomists have been advancing work on tree breeding to develop more productive and more resilient coffee trees. To date, the team says it has researched, developed and improved upon hundreds of hybrids and varietals.

Climate-proofing coffee

“We put our efforts up against the development of climate-resistant trees,” Michelle Burns, Starbucks’ EVP of global coffee, social impact and sustainability, told The Seattle Times. “Very specifically, developing new tree varietals in a way that ensures that they are more resistant to the impact of climate.”

According to World Coffee Research, climate change is the greatest long-term threat to the long-term sustainability of coffee agriculture and to the preservation of the rich diversity of coffee origins that exists today; impacts will vary by region. To develop the stronger coffee strains — which are particularly resistant to coffee rust — the Starbucks agronomy team planted and developed several varietals and hybrids and monitored them for at least six generations, which takes about 12 years.

From the coffee trees or seedlings, the team sends leaf clippings for analysis to a lab for early genetic clues about which trees are more resistant to common diseases; then, they test to see how they process and absorb nutrients; physically examine root systems and leaf structures; and taste early samples from those producing coffee cherries. The team also evaluates the cup profile (the coffee’s acidity, body and complexity) with Starbucks partners from Colombia, Costa Rica, Seattle and Switzerland.

Once the team selects the varietals that are most naturally resistant to coffee diseases and climate change, and have excellent taste and high productivity, they are distributed through Starbucks’ seed program to suppliers and farmers; to date, the company says more than three million seeds, including the six varietals, have been distributed to coffee farmers in China, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru — whether they sell to Starbucks or not.

Along with the potential rise of another climate-resistant bean called Liberica being cultivated in Uganda, Starbucks’ new Arabica varieties could help safeguard the future of one of our most beloved beverages.