In the first week of October 2023, Starbucks announced the development of climate resistant coffee trees to protect the coffee industry from climate change and for future sustainable farming.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that climate change is putting pressure on the agriculture industry and threatening the future of global food resources.

Climate change and food shortages

As a result of climate change, growing seasons and conditions globally are changing, with warming temperatures causing crops to ripen prematurely, degrade the crop quality, or even die, decreasing their yields. This pattern is especially concerning for the three crops from which 40% of the world’s caloric intake comes from: rice, wheat and maize. These three crops will not survive conditions above 35oC, meaning that rising temperatures risk eliminating almost half of the world’s food supply. Warming temperatures also allow for diseases and pests to spread, creating inhospitable environments for crops.

All these concerns extend to the coffee industry, in particular coffee trees have suffered from exacerbated coffee leaf rust, a disease that impacts their growth.

Starbucks is helping to preserve coffee beans

In response to these issues, Starbucks allocated $450m of funding into research that has led to the development of six varieties of climate-resistant coffee trees.

By investing money into researching crop modifications, Starbucks has managed to distribute three million modified seeds to farmers around the globe, alleviating the burden on those whose very limited livelihood is at risk.

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The expected rising temperatures make the new varieties of coffee trees a sustainable option for farmers as well as Starbucks itself, and the company hopes the trees will alleviate the current stresses facing the industry. This is also part of Starbucks’ net-zero goals for 2030, decarbonizing its business.

The weird and wonderful future of food

Coffee is not the only crop that has seen genetic modifications to combat threats from changing climates. Numerous universities and biotech companies have invested in the development of climate resistant crops by genetically modifying DNA. The aim is for these crops to be able to survive harsher conditions while maintaining the quality and yields of crops.

Some examples of these developments are detailed below.

  • Cherries – Cherries require distinct cold periods known as chill hours to grow successfully. Warming weather, especially in winter, is creating erratic growing patterns and seasons. Cherries will bloom too early, and crops will die without the right number of chill hours. In response to this, The International Fruit Genetics has developed the Cupid Cherry which requires a third less chill hours than other cherries. These low chill cherries are circulating through farms globally and are often cited as being sweeter and juicier than some other cherry varieties.
  • Cauliflower – Warming temperatures come with increased levels of sunlight. The white section of a cauliflower, known as the curd, is extremely sensitive to light. Over exposure to sunlight causes the curd to become beige and spotty, rendering it unsellable. Swiss agriculture firm Destinica has produced a variety of true-white cauliflower that does not get sunburnt and requires less fertilizer and less water than regular cauliflowers.
  • Carrots – A final development worth noting is modified carrots, which have long been part of crop modifications. During periods of drought, there is less groundwater present in the soil and minerals cannot be diluted, causing soils to become salty and nutrient poor. The University of Wisconsin has developed a breed of carrot that can grow in drier and saltier conditions. Before this, in 2003, the hardy Eskimo carrot was produced to reduce the carbon footprint of crop production and withstand cold winters of North Europe.

Corporate investment in agriculture is crucial

Climate change is not slowing down and is causing exponential disruption within the agriculture sector. Growing seasons are changing and soils are becoming less nutrient rich, leading to decreased yields and qualities in crops.

Investment in the research and development of genetically modified crops that can be resistant to these changes is critical for the future of farming. Starbucks are showing that large corporations can invest in agriculture to support farmers and protect their own corporate futures.