New coffee study a wake-up call

27 April, 2015 by (comments)
A coffee farmer picks fresh coffee berries in Colombia's coffee producing zone, which is suffering the effects of climate change. Credit: Neil Palmer / CIAT

A coffee farmer picks fresh coffee berries in Colombia’s coffee producing zone, which is suffering the effects of climate change. Credit: Neil Palmer / CIAT

Whether you like it frothy, skinny, straight or short, coffee lovers around the world face a wake-up call as the perfect storm brews for their favourite drink. For the first time, researchers have mapped suitability for Arabica coffee – the most popular, high-quality gourmet variety with a 70 percent global market share – to see how it will cope in 2050.

The results shows that coffee, which ranks just after oil in its value among traded commodities and is grown in more than 60 tropical countries – with around 400 million cups sipped at each year – will be significantly hit by temperatures above two degrees Celsius and rainfall changes. Production must shift to cooler areas to survive, warn authors – which could spark higher prices and reduced supply for the prized drink.

“For the first time, we’ve collected enough regional data to show that coffee farmers must compensate for higher temperatures to survive,” said Dr. Peter Läderach, co-author of the report and senior climate change specialist for the global CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), led by the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

Major producers – Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia and Colombia – together producing 65% of the global market share, are set to experience severe losses if adaptation measures are not taken, authors warn.

Taking a hike… uphill

Intercropping with trees to provide shade, or moving to higher elevations where it is cooler, can compensate for higher temperatures by two to three degrees, say authors. Generally, coffee will need to move between 300 to 500 meters further above sea level depending on location to survive.

That’s feasible in Ethiopia or Kenya along the Great Rift Valley, where Coffea Arabica originated and elevations reach 2,400 meters above sea level. But in Brazil for example – the world’s largest coffee producer and exporter, accounting for around a third of global trade – is already cultivated at low elevations and can’t shift further upwards.

“What’s more, Brazil’s highly mechanized, commercial coffee production is not suitable for intercropping with trees, which could provide shade and bring temperatures down,” said Läderach. “That could mean shifting production east – from Central America to eastern Africa and the Asia-Pacific, if strategies are not put in place to adapt,” he added.

Brazil can expect whopping 25 percent losses to current production if adaptation strategies and measures are not taken, authors warn. Nicaragua, El Salvador and Mexico all face slashes in their production and severe economic impacts are expected in Mesoamerica, where Arabica is an important export.

Dr. Tim Schilling, executive director of the World Coffee Research program, funded and driven by the global coffee industry and a partner of CIAT, responding to results said: “A 25 percent reduction in output from Brazil will have tremendous, transformational impact across the entire coffee sector. Net results will be less global supply and increased coffee prices for roasters and consumers.”

Freshly picked coffee berries in Colombia's coffee producing zone, which is suffering the effects of climate change. Credit: Neil Palmer / CIAT

Climate change threatens global coffee supply. Credit: Neil Palmer / CIAT

Going East…

Generally, the global study shows that areas between 600 and 1,900 meters above sea level will be best suited to Arabica coffee production, though this depends on many other factors. But just moving coffee upwards may not always be feasible.

Indonesia, one of the top-four producing countries, is expected to see the area suitable for producing Arabica slashed by up to 37 percent. Production could shift to higher elevations, but these typically forested, natural reserve areas are home to indigenous communities and biodiverse environments.

A shift east for Arabica coffee production would be a game-changer for the entire sector, noted Schilling.  But whether it will happen is not obvious, he added. “There is competition for land among other cash crops in Indonesia and the Pacific, and it is unknown whether Africa can build the necessary capacity in terms of politics, business climate, supporting institutions and infrastructure,” he said.

“For me, it all says brace yourselves for higher prices,” said Schilling. “The only glimmer on the horizon is the ability to change the coffee plant so that it produces decent coffee and yields under a climate-constrained environment,” he added.

A coffee farm in Colombia's coffee producing zone in Risaralda. The region is suffering the effects of climate change on the crop. Credit: Neil Palmer / CIAT.

A coffee farm in Colombia’s coffee producing zone in Risaralda. The region is suffering the effects of climate change on the crop. Credit: Neil Palmer / CIAT.

Action now, researchers warn

Coffee takes around five years to become established and bear fruit. That’s a long-term investment for the 25 million farmers, most of them smallholders, who depend on coffee for their livelihoods. This research enables scientists to evaluate new coffee hybrids to perform under a wide range of production environments – including those projected in future.

“We expect to know more about how the genetics of coffee can be used to buy more time,” said Schilling. Information gained by breeders will be invaluable for the development of new, climate-resilient varieties tailored to individual climatic zones.

But research is only one piece of the puzzle. “We need to design adaptation strategies to protect the coffee industry and smallholder farmers that supply it now,” stressed Läderach. “For that to happen, global supply chain actors along the coffee value chain need to collaborate and fund adaptation efforts.”

That’s already happening in Nicaragua. In 2013, adaptation strategies developed by CIAT and partners were included in the country’s national plan, triggering US$10 million in support for the Nicaraguan government to implement them. “Coffee farmers can already feel the heat. It’s time to wake up,” said Läderach. “Or coffee farmers will be forced to find alternatives,” he said.

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Filed Under: Agro-ecology and Economics @en, Climate Change