Coffee is one of the crops threatened by climate change. It is one of the most valuable export crops in the world. Small farmers produce around 70% of the world’s coffee, and up to 120 million people depend directly or indirectly on coffee cultivation for their economic survival.
But the future of coffee could be in jeopardy. It is possible that the area suitable for growing coffee will decrease by 2050. This conclusion was drawn in a report published in 2014 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Other studies show that rising temperatures are also linked to the emergence of pests on coffee plants, pointing out that 60% of wild coffee species, ie 75 out of 124 varieties, are threatened with extinction.
All of this means that growing coffee will become increasingly difficult and coffee more expensive in the near future.
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Ideal environmental conditions for coffee cultivation
Optimal conditions for growing coffee are cool to warm tropical climate, fertile soil and few pests and diseases. The so-called “coffee belt” stretches around the world along the equator and is grown in North, Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
The most important requirements for the growth of a coffee plant are a temperate or tropical climate without frost, lots of sun and plenty of water.
Conversely, too much direct sunlight or too much water can be detrimental to the coffee plants. Ideally, coffee should be grown in moist, fertile, well-drained soil under a shaded canopy that gets a healthy dose of sun every day.
Coffee also thrives best at high altitudes, but this is more a result of the growing conditions there than a specific altitude preference of the plant itself.
In addition to living in a temperate climate, growing coffee requires a willingness to make long-term, labor-intensive commitments to the land and plants. Coffee is usually grown from seed and it takes an average of 3-5 years for a plant to bear fruit.
Normally, a coffee tree goes through three main life stages:
- The growth phase, which lasts between 4 and 7 years.
- The productive phase, which can last between 15 and 25 years, although this can vary greatly.
- The final phase in which the tree physiologically declines until it dies.
Each healthy plant produces about 2,000 coffee cherries per year, or about 4,000 coffee beans, which equates to about a pound of roast coffee per healthy plant . These cherries can take seven to eleven months to ripen.
Growing coffee takes time, labor and financial investment. In addition, the global market is constantly fluctuating and environmental factors affect crop yields from year to year. In addition, there are many other political, social, and economic variables at play in every region and around the world.
Effects of climate change on coffee production
Climate change has already impacted the coffee industry. Brazil, which supplies a third of the world’s coffee supply, has recently been grappling with its worst frosts in at least 40 years, pushing up prices.
Arabica coffee, the world’s most traded coffee, is a crop that requires special conditions to thrive. The best growing areas for coffee are in Central and South America, especially in Brazil, as well as in Central and West Africa and parts of South and Southeast Asia.
Over the next 28 years, the projected impacts of climate change in these areas may make them significantly less favorable for coffee growing as suitable acreage dwindles.
It could also mean switching to Robusta trees, which while more resilient, produce beans that are generally considered to be of lower quality than Arabica beans.
Shifting of cultivation areas
The most important impact of climate change on coffee production is the shift in cultivation areas. Studies suggest that changes in temperature and rainfall due to climate change could, among other things, increase the minimum altitude of the area for coffee cultivation in the coming years. The areas suitable for coffee cultivation are shifted out of the traditional “coffee belt”.
According to World Coffee Research’s 2018 annual report, 47% of global coffee production comes from countries that could lose more than 60% of their acreage by 2050.
This displacement of coffee-growing areas would require the replanting of entire areas with coffee trees. Also, there is no guarantee that these new areas will be equally suitable. For example, coffee, especially high-quality Arabica specialties, is preferably grown in mountainous regions whose altitude offers many of the climatic conditions.
Unpredictable climate and coffee
Climate change is not only warming the planet, it is also changing weather patterns. Coffee is a sophisticated product that thrives best in a predictable climate with clearly defined wet and dry seasons.
Global warming is destabilizing these weather patterns, causing everything from floods to droughts to earlier-than-usual rainy seasons. This can result in plants flowering too early or only sporadically, resulting in uneven ripening of the cherries, lengthening the harvest and making it difficult to harvest the crop at the ideal point of ripeness.
Uneven cherry ripening and long harvest times can prevent growers from maximizing yields, eating into their already slim profit margins. Also , extreme weather conditions and natural disasters can prevent the coffee from making it to market.
Effects of climate change on coffee quality
The flavor profile of a coffee is determined by the acidity as well as the overall body and aroma of a bean. When weather conditions change, the well-known properties of certain types of beans are threatened.
According to a study, coffee quality is vulnerable to changes in environmental factors related to climate change. Many coffee-growing regions are increasingly experiencing climatic changes that affect the taste, aroma and even the nutritional quality of coffee.
Higher farms have better coffee flavor and aroma, while excessive exposure to light affects coffee quality. Coffee quality is also susceptible to changes from water stress, higher temperatures and carbon dioxide.
Gourmet coffee accounts for more than half of the total consumption. When the quality of the taste and aroma decreases, coffee consumption is likely to decrease. This can affect the price of coffee and the livelihoods of the farmers who grow the coffee.
Small producers are hit the hardest
Arabica beans have to be grown at high altitude, which means farmers grow in mountainous regions where large-scale production would be impossible. This is one of the reasons why most coffee farmers are smallholders.
If the smallholders then have to change the area under cultivation, they do not have the means to buy new land. Also, it can take up to five years for new coffee plants to bear fruit.
Pests in coffee
Studies have shown that climate change will reduce coffee yields and affect coffee growth. Global warming could increase the pests. A 2011 study reported that the coffee berry borer, Hypothenemus hampei, seems to thrive well in warm conditions.
The coffee berry borer is a small, black beetle about 1.5 mm long. The female beetle bores a hole in the top of the coffee cherry and lays her eggs there. When the eggs hatch, the larvae eat the inside of the fruit. This destroys the coffee and renders it unusable.
Another pest is the black branch borer. It is a black beetle that nests in the branches and lays its eggs there. Its scientific name is Xylosandrus compactus (Eichho). The female beetles carry a fungus with them. This fungus is grown by the male and female beetles. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the fungus in the host plant or branch.
In addition, coffee is not only attacked by insects, but also by fungal diseases, the so-called rust.
Disturbances in coffee transport
Most of the world’s coffee is grown in a different country than the one in which it is consumed. To get it to its final destination, it has to be transported by sea , usually by ship. Due to the melting of the polar ice caps as a result of climate change, sea levels will then rise worldwide.
This leads to unpredictability and delays in shipping times and higher prices.
How can coffee be adapted to climate change?
As agricultural land suitable for growing coffee decreases, some researchers recommend shade plantations. Shade coffee plantations, already used in some places to preserve tropical forests and their biodiversity, are also proposed as a solution to rising temperatures and pests.
Shade trees protect the coffee from extreme microclimates and provide ample habitat for animals that can feed on insects such as the coffee cherry borer.
The future of the coffee bean
Much of the hope for the coffee industry lies in hybrid beans. These strains are more resilient to extreme weather conditions and diseases.
The hybrid causing a stir is called Starmaya, a strain that can be passed on to farmers in the form of cheaper seeds.
Colombian coffee and climate change
Colombian coffee cultivation sequesters 5.2 times the amount of carbon it emits. The country’s coffee farmers have planted millions of native trees to protect the environment and biodiversity. However, the experts believe that everyone involved in coffee production needs to act more decisively.
Strategies for adapting to climate change are currently being developed. Using improved coffee varieties, better management of soil and water resources, and better access to climate information are some examples that could help build a more sustainable and resilient coffee sector in the face of climate change.
In September 2021, the national government approved a sustainable growth strategy for the Colombian coffee sector. It has $9 million in seed capital to be used over a nine-year period. This strategy aims to address farmers’ limited access to inputs, income instability, market barriers to trade, inadequate public infrastructure affecting the coffee supply chain, including inadequate road networks, and low levels of digital connectivity in agricultural areas.
Global warming can harm coffee in a number of ways. Reduction in acreage, increase in pests and loss of quality are some of the negative impacts on coffee plantations.
While these changes may be inconvenient or costly for coffee consumers, the implications for coffee farmers could be far worse. Much of the world’s coffee production depends on farmers living in vulnerable economic conditions, many of whom grow only coffee.