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Climate Change is Killing Our Coffee

A woman harvesting coffee in Chajul, Guatemala. Source: USAID Guatemala.
A woman harvesting coffee in Chajul, Guatemala. Source: USAID Guatemala.

Researchers of the Royal Botanical Garden in the United Kingdom predict the extinction of up to 60 % of coffee growing areas in Ethiopia until the end of the century.

Ethiopia, the genetical origin of all our nowadays coffee plants, is losing its coffee? 

Reasons for that are obvious: the human-driven climate change. Coffee is accustomed to dry, mineral soil and moderate temperatures. However, the increasing temperatures and increasing heavy rainfalls, distress the fragile coffee plant. The changing climate conditions are not the only menace to the plant, but also the spreading pests, e.g., coffee rust, which threatens coffee.

 

What applies to Ethiopia can be used to almost all Arabica coffee (Coffea arabica) growing regions worldwide. The yield will decrease massively in this century, not only in Ethiopia, t but also in the leading production countries like Brazil, Guatemala, Colombia, etc.

Since the coffee plant likes to have it calm and dry, the farmers have to move higher and higher with their farmers. Whereas the cultivation areas used to be around 900 - 1500 m above sea level, in many places farmers have had to move to higher altitudes of up to 2000 m for years. Only in this way they  can still achieve sufficient crop yields and protect the coffee plants from pests. Coffee is their entire property, representing their livelihood and future.

 

 

The climate change is not just all about coffee. The problem for mankind is water scarcity. It can lead to both drought and desertificationas well as instigate conflict in communities and between countries. Source: United Nations Photos
The climate change is not just all about coffee. The problem for mankind is water scarcity. It can lead to both drought and desertificationas well as instigate conflict in communities and between countries. Source: United Nations Photos

But at some point, even the highest areas that can be cultivated will no longer be high enough. At some point, the highest mountain will be over.

What then? 

At the moment I am incredibly pessimistic that the world's population and governments can still limit and slow down climate change. Accordingly, I believe it is extremely likely that the yield from coffee cultivation will decline in the coming decades.

Over the last fifty years, we have been spoiled with steadily increasing crop yields. There are many reasons for this: larger cultivation areas, more effective cultivation, better fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.

But chemistry and agricultural science can only face climate change to a limited extent. Even now, there are isolated crop failures when the coffee rust attacks the entire plantations and destroys the plants. Unfortunately, this is likely to become more common in the future.

At the moment we are at the peak of coffee production. Never before has there been so much coffee in circulation, especially so much good coffee. So we are used to low prices and the constant availability of Arabica coffee. I can go to the next supermarket any given time, and select between 25 different brands with 10 different "varieties" each.

 

Maybe the era of unlimited, cheap coffee enjoyment is coming to an end. And I also have to learn that my careless consumption of 12 cups a day is not sustainable. It seems, like less is more, in this case too.
Maybe the era of unlimited, cheap coffee enjoyment is coming to an end. And I also have to learn that my careless consumption of 12 cups a day is not sustainable. It seems, like less is more, in this case too.

But what to do if the Arabica coffee yield decreases? Do we have to stop drinking coffee?

This question can perhaps be answered with one. It seems promising to cultivate previously available wild coffee types that are potentially more resistant to pests and climate change. The Ethiopian jungle still hides over 100 different varieties, most of which are unknown for industrial cultivation. However, as described above, the entire ecosystem in Ethiopia is in distress, including these wild coffees.

Another alternative is the cultivation of Coffea canephora, commonly known as Robusta. This is, as the name suggests, much more robust. Robusta can be cultivated at lower altitudes, does not need dry and moderate climates, but instead adapts to the conditions. Robusta is not considered to be equivalent to Arabica in terms of aroma. It is harsher in the bitter taste, less finely differentiated in the fragile aroma compounds, and generally merely a somewhat more crude version of Arabica - in terms of taste.

 

The last option - and this is probably the most unpopular version - is to rethink, adapt and reduce our coffee consumption. These masses of coffee that countries like Germany, Finland, and the USA drink, but also with the emerging interest in coffee in emerging markets like China, India, etc, the coffee supply will reach its limit in the future. 

 

However, we can probably also take a balanced middle course. In my countless debates with my fellow researchers and with other universities on this subject, we came to the conclusion that the solution to our coffee addiction lies somewhere in between.

It is very likely that we will develop even more intelligent cultivation methods, improve existing smart technologies and thus increase the yield of Coffea arabica. Farmers can also start growing Robusta. This will increase the total quantity of coffee and satisfy growing markets. Last but not least, it might be a good idea to be more mindful of coffee consumption and drink a little less.

Making the minimalist point of view: less is more, even in the case of coffee consumption. Therefore, I am trying to drink my daily cups of coffee with more mindfulness - although I fail often enough, and just pour down that strong, black beverage.

 

Finally, there may still be hope that people will manage to slow down climate change.         


"The big question is how we can make change sustainable without small farmers being driven from their plantations by catastrophes and areas in mountain forests being cleared to meet demand. - The big question is how we can support a sustainable change without small farmers being driven from their plantations by catastrophes or areas in mountain forests being cleared to meet demand." - Christian Bunn, CIAT


Scientific Indepth Analysis

For all interested readers, I would like to go a little more into detail.

 

Coffee plants live on average thirty years. Therefore, the plants that are currently growing will most likely be affected by climatic changes in the future. Scientists from CIAT (The International Center for Tropical Agriculture) with leading scientist Christian Bunn, developed several algorithms to calculate how the population of Arabica and Robusta will develop until 2050 based on climate data and plant characteristics. The higher temperatures will probably eradicate up to fifty percent of the area under Arabica by 2050, whereas the cultivation of Robusta will suffer mainly from inter-seasonal temperature fluctuations.

The effects are most significant in areas further from the equator and at low altitudes. The impacts at higher altitudes are also negative, but less pronounced. 

This is good news for parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, Indonesia, and Colombia. These countries are above all in the interest of the specialty coffee scene, which will be pleased, because the nations will be less strongly influenced by climatic change. Nevertheless, in these countries up to one-third of the cultivated area will be lost by 2050.

The world's leading coffee-growing regions, Brazil and Vietnam, will experience a substantial decline in the areas available for coffee cultivation. However, there will be a few areas in East Africa and Asia that are more suitable for coffee cultivation - but these are wooded areas and these would, if at all after deforestation, mainly for the cultivation of Robusta coffee.

 

In general, the Arabica market is under intense pressure. The increasing demand is diametrically opposed to the area under cultivation and the yield. With the development of new arable land, deforestation and planting, smart technologies and management, countries near the equator with higher arable land could be used for coffee cultivation in the future. However, Brazil's coffee powerhouse is likely to suffer heavy losses.

It is also essential to better understand the genetic backbone of coffee. Wild coffee varieties could be a solution, but they are extremely threatened by the rapidly changing climate.

     


The changing areas under cultivation can be displayed graphically. The following graphic first shows suitable cultivation areas. The blue color represents a positive trend, the shift to green a negative direction. Accordingly, it can be said that in most regions of the world, the suitable coffee cultivation areas are declining sharply due to climate change.

 

The second part of the graph shows the change in suitable areas for coffee cultivation. Also here in blue, the positive development and in yellow to red, the negative growth. There it becomes particularly evident that the suitable cultivation areas for Arabica are declining sharply.

Decreasing suitability for coffee growth (in blue/green); decreasing C. arabica areas, shifting from blue (positive) to yellow and red (negative development). Source: Christian Bunn (CIAT) , https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-014-1306-x
Decreasing suitability for coffee growth (in blue/green); decreasing C. arabica areas, shifting from blue (positive) to yellow and red (negative development). Source: Christian Bunn (CIAT) , https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-014-1306-x

Further Literature:

  • Bunn, Christian, Peter Läderach, Oriana Ovalle Rivera, and Dieter Kirschke. "A Bitter Cup: Climate Change Profile Of Global Production Of Arabica And Robusta Coffee". Climatic Change 129, no. 1-2 (2014): 89-101. doi:10.1007/s10584-014-1306-x .
  • Davis, A., Gole, T., Baena, S. and Moat, J. (2012). The Impact of Climate Change on Indigenous Arabica Coffee (Coffea arabica): Predicting Future Trends and Identifying Priorities. PLoS ONE, 7(11), p.e47981.
  • "Climate Change: Pinpointing The World’S Most Vulnerable Coffee Zones". Worldcoffeeresearch.Org, 2019. https://worldcoffeeresearch.org/news/climate-change-wcr-and-leading-coffee-scientists-pinpoint-worlds-most-vulnerable-coffee-zones/. Last accessed February 20th, 2019.
  • "Wild Coffee Species Threatened By Climate Change And Deforestation". Nature.Com, 2019. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00150-9. Last accessed February 20th, 2019.

 

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Comments: 1
  • #1

    Bekruz (Monday, 25 March 2019 06:54)

    Good job�