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Coffee and climate change: an uncertain future for millions of farmers around the world

An inconvenient truth is not what most people want to hear before they’ve had their first cup of coffee in the morning. Our coffee break is “me time,” and we want to enjoy it. If the temperature is too high, put some ice in your cup.

But for some 26 million people around the world who make it their business to produce our coffee, change is impossible to ignore.

Arabica coffee, which makes up about 70% of the 1.6 billion cups of coffee the world drinks every day, is especially sensitive to fluctuations in temperature and rainfall. Too much rain when the plants are in flower and pollination is dramatically disrupted. Too little rain while the berries are forming and they might shrivel up on the branch. Wild arabica coffees evolved to grow best in tropical, forested mountain landscapes. The slightly cooler temperatures up in the mountains, along with the unique mitigating effect that forest cover has on soil type and humidity, create a specific ecosystem niche in which arabica coffee plants thrive.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Chesworth

In recent years, a combination of higher temperatures, long cycles of drought with bouts of erratic, excessive rainfall, and deforestation threatens both wild and cultivated arabica coffee species.

On top of this, a devastating epidemic of a plant disease called la rolla, or leaf rust, is taking an enormous toll on coffee harvests around the world, with some coffee producing nations declaring a state of emergency. Costa Rica, Ethiopia, and India, three of the top fifteen coffee producing countries in the world, have all experienced sharp declines in coffee yields. Peru alone is feeling the impacts of la rolla on about 40% of its coffee crop this year, with other nations experiencing similar or worse potential losses.

People in all sectors of the coffee industry, from small farmer cooperatives to giant import operations to the corner coffee shop, are feeling the heat from a reduced and less reliable supply of good quality beans — and the increased costs that come with it.

Some in the industry suggest turning to the more bitter, more caffeinated robusta coffee bean, which is grown at lower elevations and can withstand higher temperatures. Robusta is used primarily for making instant freeze-dried coffee crystals and some espresso blends, and is commonly served in Turkey and in Greece. For people accustomed to the taste of robusta and for those who drink coffee just for the caffeine, it seems a viable alternative to arabica.

But the prospect of transforming the arabica market into robusta is highly unlikely.

It is first of all unwise to convert limited agricultural lands in lower elevations en masse from growing annual and perennial food crops to long-term establishment of an export crop. That’s especially true when the sheer scale of production is that of coffee, the second largest traded item in the world next to oil. Coffee-growing nations already struggling with food security couldn’t possibly withstand the pressure.

Second, it just isn’t the same. Asking an arabica coffee drinker to switch to robusta is like asking a wine connoisseur to start drinking shots of Ouzo instead of the Pinot Noir.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Chesworth. Title: Sierra de Agalta of Olancho, Honduras. Arabica coffee requires a delicate balance of temperature and moisture in its cloud forest mountain habitat.

Hybrid coffee varieties grown by most farmers can be bred to be more drought- and disease-resistant and heat tolerant, to a degree. But with all the cultivated coffee in the world originating from just a few wild strains, farmers and plant scientists are drawing from a very limited genetic pool. If the cultivated coffee varieties most people drink are the “hard drive” of the coffee industry, consider the wild strains to be its back-up system.

When both the hard drive and the back-up system are vulnerable and experiencing failures, there’s no way to ignore it. It’s time to act.

But before you make a run on local stores and cafés to start stockpiling that bunker with your favorite espresso beans, rest assured the coffee industry is hard at work to keep arabica thriving and flowing into your cup.

World Coffee Research, a consortium of research groups, universities, and coffee trade organizations, awards grants and provides technical expertise to projects around the world, with an approach combining development of new hybrid varieties; germplasm collection and assessment; preservation of heirloom coffee seeds; education; and the transfer of regionally-appropriate technology to producer groups. Initiated by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), the consortium comprises dozens of prominent groups, including the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Center for Agricultural Bioscience International (CABI), the Center for Tropical Research and Higher Education (CATIE), Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, USDA Coffee Research Program, and others.

A European initiative, Coffee and Climate, is a development partnership with the private sector in cooperation with the German Society for International Collaboration (GIZ) and other international research and development organizations. Coffee and Climate is working to assemble best practices for mitigating and adapting to climate change based on farmer know-how and state-of-the-art climate science. Pilot projects and a globally-applicable “tool-box” for coffee growers are underway. The initiative’s most recent corporate partner, Tim Hortons, serves coffee in over 4,200 restaurants in Canada and the US.

On a macro-level of the specialty coffee industry, larger companies like Starbucks and Green Mountain Coffee are implementing their own climate change mitigation policies at their factories and corporate offices, as well as developing and funding a variety of on-the-ground projects with the growers who provide their coffee.

On the level of micro-roasters and café owners, local and regional coffee business people are increasingly engaging in direct-trade relationships, traveling to coffee growing regions to seek out the quality they want and to see for themselves what farmers need to improve their conditions and their lives. Others source their beans from coffee brokers and roasters who carry specific certifications that help guarantee attention is being paid to social equity, environmental protection, and climate change mitigation.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Chesworth. Coffee growers in the Andes of Northern Peru are finding long-term support through organizations like the CECANOR cooperatives, PROASSA, and Café Femenino Foundation. Emphasizing sustainable community development, organic certification, and specialty coffee quality control helps strengthen these farmers’ position to better confront an uncertain future.

Although not all of us weigh the social and environmental impacts of our purchasing decisions when we buy coffee, a significant number of coffee drinkers in the “specialty coffee” market niche do. Because of this, adhering to the higher quality standards of a “specialty coffee” designation has been critical to the success of other important trade standards and certifications including organic, fair trade, Smithsonian Bird-Friendly, and Rainforest Alliance Certified, to name only a few. We purchase a better tasting coffee as a way to better appreciate and enjoy life. For many of us, knowing that the land and people are being better treated as well is a valuable and for some, a mandatory part of that positive experience.

The whole world is starting to respond.

Efforts to confront climate change head on are gaining momentum on a global scale. In 2014, more than 190 nations of the world will convene in Lima, Peru for the 20th Conference of the Parties to the UN FCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). The conference, or “COP 20,” aims for a global agreement on mitigating impacts as well as advancing adaptation strategies to aid developing nations struggling with the effects of climate change. Lima, perched at the edge of a cliff on the Pacific coast and surrounded on three sides by desert, provides an apropos setting for this important international meeting.

Peru has already taken proactive steps to address climate change in the absence of a binding global pact, including a voluntary commitment to reduce its own CO2 emissions, designation and enforcement of protected areas, forest management with a zero deforestation goal, and attention to food security and sustainable agriculture. At COP 20, Peru – along with its neighbors in the Andean Community and other UN-member nations – hopes to advance the concept of “climate justice,” based on the idea that developing countries maintain a right to pursue industrial modernization, while the world’s biggest polluters should take greater responsibility for emission cuts.

These children live in a village where their parents and all of their neighbors are coffee farmers. They are likely to continue that tradition and work the land on their own coffee farms when they grow up. Cultural survival for traditional villagers depends on the future prospects and well-being of young people. Photo Credit: Jennifer Chesworth

Of all the coffee-growing nations, Peru is quintessential in its need to adapt to climate change. It is one of the most geographically diverse places on the planet, with a landscape ranging from tropical lowland rainforests in the Amazon to cloud forests on the mountainsides to glacial peaks to vast deserts to rugged coastal shelves. Home to the world’s largest expanse of tropical glaciers, for centuries Peru has depended on the slow and seasonal trickling melt of the Andean icecaps for up to 70% of its water supply, to feed its rivers and lakes and to recharge its groundwater. Glacial melt also helps fill Peru’s hydroelectric dams, which power most of the utilities for Lima and other cities and towns. With the first decade of this century clocking in as the hottest on record, ice caps are melting at an alarming rate, with some of the smaller glaciers already entirely gone.

Because coffee production requires a great deal of water – from adequate and timely rainfall or irrigation through hulling, rinsing, and fermentation of the beans – the coffee industry and the farming communities that depend on it are particularly vulnerable to the effects of drought and diminishing water supplies.

In Peru, as elsewhere, when farmers can no longer make a living on the land, many have no choice but to leave the countryside and migrate to cities, where they all too often find themselves unemployed and hungry in overcrowded, unsanitary living conditions. Developing nations like Peru must balance urbanization, industrialization, and job creation with food security, environmental protection, and the cultural survival of village life based on traditional agriculture.

Representatives from several regional CECANOR cooperatives of Peru compete for the title of “Coffee Queen” at their annual Coffee Festival. The determined-looking ten-year-old in front won the competition after giving a rousing speech about her village’s commitment to sustainable and organic farming. Photo Credit: Jennifer Chesworth.

The road from Chiclayo up into the coffee growing areas high in the Andes of Northern Peru crosses through a strange metamorphosis of the landscape. Chiclayo, the largest regional city center, is hot and dry, surrounded by miles of nothing but desert that seems pocked and desolate as the moon. Desert gives way to mesquite and dry brush and then vast, irrigated fields of corn, sugar, cotton, and rice that carpet the land as you near the river and climb the foothills toward the northern flank of the Andes Corridor. The bleak, barren peaks stand in stark contrast to the lush green floodplains of the Marañon River as it winds its way through mountain passes to eventually feed the Amazon.

As the road continues to climb, it becomes lonely and rough, connecting a few remote villages scattered across the face of the ridges at elevations where the coffee grows, between 1,200 and 1,700 meters or more above sea level. Beyond that, as the foothills reach higher into the Andes Corridor, tundra grasses and lichens fade into rock, where it’s too high for trees and other plants to grow in the shadows of the mountain peaks.

Even without taking climate change into account, the coffee zones in this area are some of the most isolated, marginalized, and challenging lands on which to make a living as a farmer.

Coffee growers around the globe face similar conditions. The mountain terrain where arabica coffee thrives is, in general, difficult to access. Roads, if any, are often primitive, prone to erosion and landslides. Deforestation, from slash-and-burn, logging, conversion to pasture and other uses, chips away each year at what’s left of woodlots and wild forests. Basic utilities like electricity and plumbing may not be available. Doctors and health care clinics are few and far between, and may be financially out-of-reach for remote, rural people who depend on subsistence farming and a modest income from a few hectares of coffee.

Nationally, in Peru, the average annual income is around $8,000 for men and $5,000 for women. You read that right; that’s annual income. For most small farmers, yearly income may be far less. The villagers high in these mountains just can’t afford to let coffee — their primary source of income — fail them.

But for some farmers in Northern Peru, growing arabica coffee by mimicking its original, natural forest habitat is helping them weather the storm of climate change impacts.

“Conventional coffee plantations are very intensive monocultures of high plant density with no forest cover. They’re more vulnerable to climate change, wear out the soil, and are more susceptible to pests and plant diseases,” says Daniel Rodriguez, director of programs for the Latin American office of Practical Action in Lima, Peru. “Alternatively, agroforestry systems imitate the characteristics of a diverse, natural forest, which makes them more sustainable and resilient. Agroforestry is the most important climate change adaptation strategy that Practical Action promotes among coffee growers, cooperatives, and local governments in the regions where we work. The best quality coffee in Peru is coming from agroforestry systems; that is to say, it’s ‘shade grown’ coffee. It’s our best bet for the future of the coffee industry. ”

Shade grown coffee in Latin America. Photos by Rhett A. Butler

Jennifer Chesworth is editor of Philly Coffee Buzz

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