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For many, coffee really is a matter of life and death

Climate change's impact on coffee
Climate change could have dramatic impact on coffee 04:13

The nomination of a climate change skeptic to run the Environmental Protection Agency may have renewed old arguments in Washington, but CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips says in Uganda, there’s no argument. 

The facts there are clear, and they affect people in the African country directly. As Phillips discovered, the facts also affect anybody, anywhere who starts their day with a favored hot, brown beverage.

To millions of people, coffee is the other dark liquid that powers the world. But because of the damage being done to the planet by the primary dark liquid, oil, along with other fossil fuels, coffee is in trouble

So, too, are the farmers who grow it.

High in the mountains of eastern Uganda, coffee is the most important crop grown, but it hasn’t been a good year for harvest.

Anthony and Vincent Khabala’s family have been growing coffee on their farm about 4,000 feet up the slopes of Mount Elgon for generations. Lately, they’ve been having problems their family has never encountered before.

It turns out coffee is as fussy as the people who drink it. This Goldilocks of crops likes just the right altitude, the right temperature and the right amount of rain and sunshine -- and all in the right order.

Climate change impacting Rwanda's endangered mountain gorillas 03:07

“Too much sunshine produces bad fruits,” Anthony tells CBS News, and this year, there’s been too much sunshine on Mount Elgon.

On another farm, Phillips meets another farmer with another problem.

A fine white powder coats parts of Sam Massa’s coffee plants. It’s produced by the stem-borer beetle, which drills into the plants and, according to Massa, “completely ruins” them.

Massa says the warming weather has brought new pests and diseases that used to live down in the valleys, up the hillsides.

“Ten years back, it was not here,” he tells Phillips. But now, “most of the farms have been destroyed completely, totally by this stem borer.”

Netherlands farm works to adapt to climate change effects 04:02

Crop yields have been dropping and prices are up by as much as 30-percent in some areas since last year, according to published reports.

More than just the consumer’s morning pick-me-up is threatened here; the farmers are caffeine-dependent for another reason.

From picking the coffee plant berries to processing them to drying and sorting the beans and getting them to market, this is a family business, and every member of the family contributes.

Cash from the coffee sales provides the only income to pay for school for the kids, and for medical care. 

Coffee production supports an estimated 120 million of some of the world’s poorest people.

But there is an imbalance in the coffee world; the retail end is controlled by big brands, the big global distributers, but much of the production comes from small family-run, almost vegetable-patch sized farms like the ones Phillips toured in Uganda. 

If production fails on Mount Elgon, the big boys can simply go elsewhere. The people who depend on those sales for their livelihood, however, can’t go anywhere.

The latest estimates warn climate change may mean as much as half of the land now used for coffee production around the world will no longer be suitable for it by the middle of this century.

For the people who consume coffee, it’s about a drink.

For the people who produce it, and depend on it, it’s about life.

The problem isn’t limited to Africa: The same things are happening in Central and South America, and in the new coffee boom areas of Southeast Asia.

One more thing that may be the cruellest cut; the type of coffee plants being hit hardest by the changing conditions, the ones at greatest risk, are the best, most coveted of them all -- the Arabica beans. 

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