What Happens When We Run Out of Coffee?

In the future, we may have to look to other sources to get our daily fix.

That bottomless cup of coffee may soon be a thing of the past. (Photo: Getty Images)
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

The origins of coffee are steeped in mystery. Its stimulating effects were first observed by Ethiopian shepherds, who noticed their sheep became hyperactive after eating the fallen red berries of the coffea arabica plant. In the middle of the 15th century, Sufi monks in Yemen were roasting the berry seeds and grinding them into a hot elixir that would help them stay up and recite prayers. By 1600, what had once been reviled as a "Muslim drink" had gotten the endorsement of the Pope.

Now coffee is as sacred as ever. Over half of us drink it every day, with the average American consuming 3.1 cups, eighth most in the world. Researchers are touting its surprising health benefits. And while it's an $80 billion global industry, it's still growing fast.

So why is Starbucks preparing us for coffee's impending doom?

In a couple words: climate change. According to scientists, extreme weather patterns are projected to knock the notoriously fickle bean out of its prime growing areas over the next 40 years, creating a worldwide shortage. It's already happening: in Ethiopia, coffee farmers are being forced to abandon their drought-plagued crop, while in Panama, insufficient crop yields have led to coffee being imported for the first time in its history.

I loathe the idea of a $9 cup of joe as much as anyone. But coffee is a luxury. As Peter Giuliano, director of coffee at the North Carolina-based roaster Counter Culture, told GOOD Magazine : "Coffee as cheap fuel for the masses is a historical anomaly. There's no nutritive value. It's drunk just for the pleasure of it. It's a total miracle of global agriculture, a feat that spans cultures and countries."

When the earliest European settlers arrived in America they got buzzed on "cassina," a black drink made from the roasted leaves and stems of Ilex vomitoria, a holly plant named for the vomiting bouts it induced. During the Civil War, roasted ground chickory root was all the rage, keeping soldiers awake on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Dandelion coffee, made from the dried and ground roots of yellow dandelions, was featured in Harper's New Monthly magazine in 1886 as a way to pass the boredom on the Great Plains. For centuries, coffee has been been a relative rarity. Now we consider it part of our cultural identity.

I don't want to go back to drinking dandelion juice any more than you do. But it's worth remembering that we could. There have always been plenty of worthy alternatives for our arabica fix, as there will be in the future —with or without coffee. Yerba Mate anyone?

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