- Drier and hotter climates are wreaking havoc on arabica coffee production in São Paulo and Minas Gerais; global climate change and deforestation in the Amazon and Cerrado are the main causes.
- Since 2010, temperatures in coffee-producing municipalities have risen by 1.2° Celsius (2.16° Fahrenheit) during the flowering period; projections indicate more days of extreme temperatures (above 34°C, or 93°F) by 2050.
- Producers are betting on agroforestry and shading techniques to save production and improve natural pollination.
As the fire season reaches its peak in the Amazon region, coffee producers located thousands of kilometers away are also living their own private hell. Farms like Felipe Barretto Croce’s in Mococa, in the state of São Paulo, have seen fires increase in recent years, jeopardizing the production of what is the world’s largest coffee exporter.
“We see that August and September are critical months at the end of the dry season — evapotranspiration, water deficit in the soil. It starts to get critical and we see a lot of fires, a lot of wildfires in the region,” explains Croce.
Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza (FAF), owned by Felipe’s family, is located in the countryside of São Paulo, in the middle of two biomes, the Cerrado and the Atlantic Forest, where 10 hectares (25 acres) of organic arabica coffee are becoming increasingly vulnerable to environmental changes, largely accentuated by the loss of vegetation in the Amazon.
“In recent years, we’ve had days with more extreme weather, more intense cold and more intense heat. We’re seeing a rain deficit in general. This is probably due to a lot of deforestation around us, in the Cerrado and the Amazon,” Croce says.
These dry and hot seasons are expected to become worse and more frequent. Climate modeling by the Gro Intelligence platform estimates that the number of days with extreme temperatures above 34° Celsius (93° Fahrenheit) in the coffee trees’ critical flowering period, between September and October, will increase by up to 10 days per month by 2050. The data suggest that Brazil’s coffee production is likely to be the most severely affected of all the coffee-producing countries studied (Colombia, Peru, Kenya and Ethiopia), with rainfall also expected to decrease by 10% by the middle of the century.
Two species of coffee are grown in Brazil, robusta and arabica, but there are many different varieties in the 15 producing regions. Arabica, with its rich, fruity flavor, is the bean of choice for many specialty smallholder farmers. However, it is much more susceptible to climate change. Research suggests that exposure to temperatures above 30°C (86°F) can lead to abnormalities and degeneration of the coffee plant. Since 2010, temperatures in all Brazilian coffee-producing municipalities have risen by an average of 1.2°C (2.16°F) during the flowering period.
With extreme weather becoming more frequent, the time between climatic stresses in Brazilian coffee plantations is getting shorter, which means that the plants don’t have a chance to fully recover. The effects of a severe drought in 2020 and the worst frost in 27 years in 2021 are still being felt by the highly sensitive arabica species.
Farther south, in Bragança Paulista, also in the state of São Paulo, José Oscar Ferreira Cintra, a fifth-generation coffee farmer, produces what he describes as the “Ferrari of coffee.” But he is horrified by the erratic behavior of his coffee trees.
“The climate is confused. There’s no logical sequence as there was,” says Cintra. “We have moments when it was supposed to be dry, and it’s raining. The opposite also happens. And the plant doesn’t know how to react. It totally breaks its logical sequence. The plant has blossom, chumbinho [early-stage fruit], ripened coffee, dried coffee, all at the same time. It’s a horror.”
Cintra points out that this illogical sequence results in uneven ripening of the coffee, which in turn not only reduces the quality and flavor of the beans, but also makes the plantations more susceptible to disease.
“This climate change affects the health of the plant. When you have a healthy plant, it’s unlikely to catch a disease. Or if it does, it resists and fights it off. Now, with the change, it’s a plant that has no defenses,” explains Cintra.
Impact even in regions with lots of water
From the rugged mountains of Matas de Minas on the border of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo, to the rolling hills of Mogiana, in the state of São Paulo, no two coffee-growing regions are the same. This also means that farmers’ experiences and climatic impacts vary.
With an altitude of more than 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) at its highest point, Afonso Donizete Lacerda’s coffee farm in Dores do Rio Preto, Espírito Santo, has so far escaped some of the problems faced by coffee producers in other regions.
“We have a lot of water; we’re in a privileged region. All the properties have a lot of springs, so water isn’t a problem here. We get 1,600 millimeters [63 inches] of rain a year, which is enough for the coffee plantations,” says Lacerda. “We don’t need to irrigate anything, so this also favors production.”
But even there, on Lacerda’s farm, a coffee producer for 200 years, the weather patterns are changing. “In the last five years, the March bloom has produced less. January has been rainy and we think that’s what’s affecting the decrease in late flowering here,” he explains.
With more than 50% of the world’s land projected to become inhospitable to coffee due to climate change by the turn of the century, as predicted in a 2022 study by the University of Zurich, it may seem tempting to consider migrating coffee production in Brazil to higher altitudes or colder regions.
Espírito Santo and the Amazon state of Rondônia are where Brazil’s other type of coffee bean, Canephora (conilon, similar to robusta), grows. Robusta and conilon are widely thought to be more resilient to climate change, however a recent study by academics in Italy highlights a lack of research into robusta compared with the popular arabica variety. Despite this, predictions suggest that Brazil may lose up to 60% of suitable conilon coffee growing areas by 2050. Although production this year in Rondônia hasn’t been affected by extreme weather, it’s a very different story for Espírito Santo, where climatic events, including cold winters and lack of rainfall have reduced total yields of conilon by 10.8%.
But agrometeorology expert Jurandir Zullo Junior, from the Centre for Meteorological and Climatic Research Applied to Agriculture at the State University of Campinas (Cepagri/Unicamp), warns of the risks of coffee plantations migrating to other, less traditional producing areas.
“The main concern is that coffee production requires a structure. It’s not a plant that you can easily move around like a grain crop, which you can produce in 120 days or 90 days, like beans. Farmers are usually specialized, they already have a tradition, they already have experience. That’s why adapting to a perennial crop is very difficult,” explains Zullo Junior.
How to adapt a delicate crop
With 78% of all coffee in Brazil produced by small farms, adaptation will be key; however, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and adaptation in itself will not guarantee the survival of coffee plants throughout these diverse regions.
According to Zullo Junior, who has been researching the effects of climate on agriculture for almost 40 years, coffee is a crop that is particularly vulnerable to changes in temperature and rainfall: “The losses and reduction in production are very high because, by its very nature, the plant has a well-defined limit of adaptation. It’s an understory plant [shaded area below the forest canopy], it doesn’t tolerate very high or very low temperatures.”
The most widely used adaptation technique in Brazil is irrigation, which allows coffee growers to water their crops during drier periods and reduce plant stress. But each region has different water supplies. With the increase in droughts, some farmers are concerned about the management of water resources, demanding better licenses and control of the use of aquifers.
A study by the University of Campinas found that another adaptation technique, shading, which is the planting of larger trees between coffee plants to provide shade, can reduce air temperature by 0.6°C (1.08°F), as well as reducing other stresses such as wind and increased humidity. Shading also prevents soil degradation, acts as pest control and absorbs carbon.
According to Zullo Junior, adaptation is something that needs investment. Now research is turning to help find solutions that not only protect coffee plants from diseases and pests but also make them climate-resistant.
“Genetic improvement is about developing plants that are better adapted to temperature stresses. This is probably the most appropriate technique, but it takes time to develop, at least 15 years,” explains Zullo Junior.
Family farms part of the solution
Agriculture is not only considered one of the sectors most vulnerable to the climate emergency but is also widely recognized as a big part of the solution due to its ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Many family coffee producers in Brazil are well aware of this, as for generations they have been striving to produce high-quality coffee in harmony with the delicate balance of their local biome. This passion for protecting and restoring biodiversity through agroforestry is at the heart of Felipe Barretto Croce’s farm, FAF, and this approach is producing positive results for production and the planet.
“I’m completely changing the way things have been managed in the past. Today I’m planting with functional agroforestry in the middle of the coffee, fully mechanized, to create a comfortable, balanced and stable habitat for my coffee,” says Croce.
FAF, which also has more than 40% forest on its land, uses a wide range of techniques, such as afforestation and wind protection (which keeps moisture in the soil), to ensure not only the health of the coffee plantations but also the health of the soil and important pollinators.
Research carried out by the Federal University of Alfenas in Minas Gerais, which included FAF, found an increase of 30% or more in productivity due to good natural pollination. However, the research also concluded that in São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo, 43% of municipalities were below the minimum legal reserve rate set by the Forest Code (20% of the property in all biomes except the Amazon).
This delicate network of production, protection and regeneration of nature seems to be producing good results and has the potential to mitigate some of the climate impacts. “With climate change and the destruction of biodiversity all around us, it has never been more important to prepare for a complicated future,” concludes Croce.
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Banner image: Coffee plantations in the Vertentes do Caparaó region of Espírito Santo. Photo: : Lucasknupp, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.