Workers in Yirgacheffe processing facility cull dried coffee beans. Coffee is grown between 1,750 and 2,500 meters and experiences 1,500 to 1,800 mm of rain annually. Farms cover 21,192 hectares of the 29,158 hectares in Yirgacheffe. There are 29,279 growers tending after 39.3 million trees.
Ascending from the desperation of its arid lowlands, Ethiopia displays its lush greenery and signs of prosperity among the farmers who grow coffee on mountains 5,800 to 7,300 feet above sea level.
It is here in the higher slopes and plateaus that arabica could survive.
Rain makes all the difference and it is rain that will ultimately determine the fate of the world’s greatest repository of wild-grown and cultivated coffee, according to researchers who spent the past four years compiling remarkably detailed maps depicting changes in coffee production through 2100. The Strategic Climate Institutions Programme (SCIP) project “Building a Climate Resilient Economy for Ethiopia” developed these maps to predict the suitability of arabica production over the entire country. Ethiopia’s 16 coffee producing regions are “graduated from excellent to unsuitable” over time.
Dr. Aaron P. Davis, senior research leader, plant resources at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in Richmond England, presented preliminary findings from the resilience project in March at the 4th World Coffee Congress organized by the International Coffee Organization (ICO) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The project began with highly detailed Landsat 8 satellite images of coffee forest cover and then superimposed environmental data, and crop yields, and varietals. The project team then traveled 30,000 kilometers across Ethiopia interviewing growers and agronomists to validate and perfect the models, in order to produce resilience assessments at the farm-level.
The model predicts severe declines in lands suitable for arabica production and the sobering finding “that climate drives not only productivity but also quality.”
A peer-review is underway with publication expected in the spring of 2017.
Climate change vulnerability
A joint study by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) under the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) predicts Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Colombia will also experience severe losses.
Producing countries like El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras will lose out the most, according to Peter Läderach, a climate change specialist and co-author of the study.
Brazil can expect a production drop of 25% by 2050 while East Africa could benefit by putting into place new growing practices, new varietals, and by moving upslope.
But countries with higher altitudes must contend with the fact these lands are forested, home to indigenous communities; and they are often designated as preserves or parks set aside to protect biodiverse environments.
Davis told ICO delegates there is “huge resilience potential overall for the coffee landscape.” A “full migration and full intervention” scenario could result in new “highly suitable” acreage where farmers are not growing coffee in the present day.
One advantage is that Ethiopia has a lot of land higher than 2,000 meters. The resilience strategy depends considerably on migration of coffee farms upslope where temperatures where there will be greater suitability, he explained.
In Ethiopia moving upslope mostly involves reforestation. “A lot of that land actually does not have a great value could have, if it grew coffee,” he said.
What else can be done? he asked. “If you successfully change the climate on the farm, you can buffer climate change in some areas,” he said.
What about coffee varietals (cultivars), any potential there? “Yes, but not as much as you might suppose based on multi-variety trials. Depending on where cultivars are grown even a small increase in rainfall has a much greater impact on productivity of the cultivars tested,” he said.
Other big questions remain, such as who is going to pay the price of resilience?
“At the moment we are experimenting to see how much we can adapt against the major climate variables and particularly water/rainfall,” writes Davis. In June his team set up in-the-field experiments but will not have sufficient data for at least a year, he said.
“We are also in the process of identifying ‘goldilocks’ zones in light of our findings and new research on the ‘East Africa Climate Paradox’,” he said.
Farm-level modeling predicts over several decades a severe decline of land currently suitable for arabica cultivation.
“East Africa is currently facing something of a climate paradox,” writes Bradfield Lyon with the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, Columbia University. “Over roughly the past 15 years, the region has been experiencing an increased frequency of drought, particularly during the “long rains” season from March-May. In a seeming contradiction, there is a general consensus among climate change projections that the region of East Africa will become wetter as a result of anthropogenic climate change by the end of the current century,” he writes.
Davis explains that high heat combined with changing rainfall patterns will play a large role in limiting where coffee can be grown.
In April Davis addressed the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) Re: Co Symposium in Atlanta, Ga.
Some origins and terroirs could disappear, regions like Harrar may not produce much coffee by the end of the century, said Davis.
He also pointed out that “much of the world’s coffee is grown in unsuitable places. That includes Brazil and Vietnam, for example. It is those places that will be impacted the most because they are potentially close to the tipping point,” he said.
Trees on some of the very best coffee lands are already under very severe environmental stress. “We discovered farms that were productive for many, many years that are dead,” he said.
“In Northern Ethiopia we encountered a family whose forefathers harvested every single year, then every two or three years and now they harvest every five years,” he said.
“Climate change happens slowly and it’s been happening for a very long time,” he said, illustrating the point with charts showing long-term decreases in rainfall with corresponding long-term increases in temperature, for Ethiopia’s coffee lands.
Half of the land in Africa above 2,000 meters can be found in Ethiopia, which makes it one of the largest highland areas in the tropics. Seventy-three percent of the lands over 2,000m receive 1,185mm mean annual rainfall during the main rainy season, which is from June to September.
Coffee is critical to Ethiopia
There is no question that temperatures throughout East Africa are rising and that the trend will continue, threatening the livelihood of 15 million Ethiopians (25% of the population) and putting at risk significant advances in recent years.
The UNDP climate change profile for Ethiopia reveals a 1.3OC increase since 1950, that’s a rate of .28O C per decade “which is really a dramatic increase that will become quite significant over decades,” Davis explains.
Ethiopia ranks 10th among the 10 poorest nations in the world, but “Ethiopia is one of Africa’s success stories,” writes Simon Baptist, chief economist at The Economist. “Personal disposable income growth has been increasing at an average rate of 6% over the past five years. We forecast that this will edge up to an average of 7% a year from now to the end of the decade, with 2017 being the transition point when personal income grows faster in Ethiopia than in China,” explains Baptist, adding that “for a country long beset by poverty, this rough doubling of real personal income over a decade is great news and is catalyzing investment into the country rather than aid flows.”
A healthy coffee industry is critical to maintain this momentum. Agriculture accounts for 47% of Ethiopia’s gross domestic product and 85% employment. Coffee is the nation’s largest foreign exchange earner at $350 million accounting for 30% of export earnings. It is the main provider of household income across the southwest. Ethiopia grows about 1% of the world’s coffee and supplies 5% of global coffee exports.
There is more riding on the success of adaptation than just the local coffee industry.
Ethiopia is the source of more than 95% of the world’s genetic diversity for arabica coffee, according to the SCIP project, DFID/Norway/Denmark-backed fund which was established to build Ethiopia’s capacity to cope with climate change across the public, private, and civil society sectors and to respond to the challenges of transitioning to a climate resilient green economy.
The next phase of the project employs is to disseminate the products to its stakeholders and other beneficiaries, with the help of the summary report “Climate Resilient Coffee Economy Strategy,” the Coffee Atlas, policy briefing documents, online resources and mobile apps.
Davis concluded his SCAA presentation optimistically. It will take a least a decade for the coffee producing countries to fully understand what will happen in the years ahead, he predicted.
“We are not facing Armageddon, we could ensure a sustainable future for coffee but — and this is a big but — we have to do the right work now and once that work is available and we are happy with it, we need to make the right decisions,” he said.