Why should coffee care about climate change?
Dr. Henriette Walz, climate change and environmental expert with UTZ, the European-based sustainable farming certifier, presented a compelling rationale at the 2016 COTECA (Coffee Tea Cocoa/Global Industry Expo) in Hamburg, Germany. Speaking on coffee day Dr. Walz told attendees that the long period of scientific observation must give way to a concerted effort to develop solutions that farmers can use to adapt.
Rising temperatures in the equatorial regions already have reduced yield; extreme swings from drought to downpours impact coffee quality, and pests and plant diseases are expanding into new areas, explained Dr. Walz.
The risks are real. Suitable growing areas for arabica globally will be reduced by 50% by 2050 according to the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). A temperature increase of 4.8O C would make wild coffee extinct by the year 2100, she said.
The following day Aziz Elbehri, senior economist with the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), made similar predictions for tea based on his research in Kenya. Unlike coffee the fact that tea is a leaf means that yields will initially increase by 8% through 2025 due to increased solar radiation and infrequent frost. Projections through 2075 indicate current tea-growing areas in Kenya would then decrease by 22.5%. Tea trees will perish if average air temperatures exceed a threshold of 23.5°C.
Their findings are scary but FAO and UTZ are not alarmists.
Neither is Dr. Aaron P. Davis with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, who offers valuable perspective following four years assessing the world’s most precious coffee growing region. (See Bellwether Ethiopia). Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee and a bellwether for the harsh impact of climate change. Davis is optimistic that researchers will discover ways to adapt, the most promising of which is moving farms upslope where reforestation and coffee production would lead to greater land value. It is the coffee industry’s good fortune that Ethiopia encompasses 50% of the land above 2,000 meters in Africa.
Farmers face higher production costs and work longer hours due to erratic flowering and ripening only to get lower prices at the farmgate. It seems certain that production will fall below demand, especially for prized arabica. Farm-level adaptation is effective, reports Davis. Growers can minimize crop loss and productivity but not without training and support.
UTZ revised its code of conduct last year to emphasize good agricultural practices beginning with risk assessment, drought-resistant cultivars, and water saving measures that start with cover crops, the planting of shade trees, and the use of drip irrigation.
Adaptation is highly participatory, says Dr. Walz. Demonstration plots and farmer field schools present convincing evidence of the effectiveness of training growers in groups of 25 to 30. Peer-to-peer, hands-on knowledge provides a high motivation to change practices, she said. At the other end of the supply chain traders and roasters must help growers react fast enough to implement sustainable solutions. Those who form genuine partnerships with growers will benefit from better crops, reliable supply and greater resilience in the difficult days ahead.
Those who fail to participate will regret their short-sightedness.