Climate Change: Adapting to a Changing Environment

6418965615_03bd973583_oBy Alex Morgan, Rainforest Alliance. Contributions from Meredith Taylor, Counter Culture and Alvaro Gaitan, Ph.D.  head of Plant Pathology, Cenicafe.

Climate change has already made the difficult even more difficult. Coffee farmers around the world are feeling the impacts of these changes, whether through increased frequency of floods or droughts, pest outbreaks, or catastrophic weather events. Depending on the country or region–and possibly even watershed–what those impacts and changes will look like can vary greatly.

A number of innovative new initiatives are underway to mainstream climate smart agriculture in coffee farming systems. One of the preliminary steps is to understand how these changes will vary by region and to map out the expected impacts by geography. Perhaps more importantly, several of these projects will use these impact maps to develop farming practices suited for the local region, allowing farmers to maximize their efforts to adapt to a changing climate.

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Mainstreaming Climate Smart Agriculture

One such project is the Climate Smart Coffee and Cocoa Value Chains project launched in Peru and Nicaragua through the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research. This project is a partnership between the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT), Rainforest Alliance, Root Capital, and the Sustainable Food Lab. This collaboration will assess the climate exposure of coffee growing systems at a regional level within these two countries and will develop geographic-specific practices to allow farmers to increase the resilience of their farms. From there, the practices will be developed into guidelines, which will be used in existing certification training curricula and subsequently used to develop innovative impact investment products that will help finance and increase adoption of the identified adaptation practices.

The project is broken into four key components:

  • Mapping climate change risk by specific sourcing regions to allow investors to assess risk by region, rather than solely at a national scale.
  • Identifying tailored adaptation practices that farmers can implement to increase resilience depending upon the risk identified in the first phase.
  • Performing the cost-benefit analysis of each specific adaptation practice to provide guidance for appropriate investment.
  • Developing targeted financial products and strategies that will maximize the uptake of adaptation practices by groups of smallholder farmers.

The project will leverage existing value chain interventions and look to demonstrate success in these two countries with the intention of expanding throughout the region with demonstrated success.

Tools at a National Scale in Colombia

7591988004_ebe751fb21_oIn Colombia, the National Federation of Coffee Growers (FNC) and Cenicafe have taken a multi-pronged approach to addressing climate change for the nation’s farmers. One of the key technological advances in Colombia is the development of the Coffee-Growing Agroclimatic Platform. This new web service enables any producer to check on current changes in the climatic conditions in his region with respect to historic records, and to get informed in almost real-time about fluctuations in temperature, rain, and sun radiation that can affect the plant physiology and its susceptibility to diseases or pests. These early warnings, combined with technical recommendations and the right varieties, empower producers to be better prepared to face climatic variability, and to take opportune decisions when planning their coffee plantations.

In addition to this early warning system, the FNC and Cenicafe are also focusing on the practice of coffee tree renovation as one key to better resilience. Plant scientists have developed Arabica varieties adapted to Colombia’s specific coffee-growing regions, which are rust-resistant and better suited to climate variability. Already, 567,000 hectares have been replanted with over 3.4 billion trees across the country.

The early successes of this program have been facilitated through various incentives for farmers, loan packages, technical assistance, and additional financial mechanisms. Through the combination of technology, a geographic-specific early warning system, coffee tree renovation, and tailored technical assistance, Cenicafe and FNC believe they will be able to assist farmers in effectively adapting to a changing climate at a national scale, and that their model will be replicable in other coffee-growing countries.

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One Company’s Supply Chain

In 2013, Counter Culture Coffee partnered with Duke University to analyse the impact of climate change within its own supply chain on farmers the company consistently source from. Duke University graduate students chose three producer groups in Central and South America to pilot the research framework and development of coop-specific adaptation practices.

In the first phase of the research, the students analysed how climate change was impacting each co-op, how farmers at that co-op were adapting, and how the political and social landscape in the community and country were impacting those adaptations. In phase two, the students took the suggested adaptation recommendations for each co-op and narrowed them down to three per co-op with the input of co-op leaders and Counter Culture. This group of students then researched the feasibility of implementing each of the chosen adaptation strategies. The full results of the two-year project, including full feasibility studies on the chosen recommendations for each co-op, will be finalized in the spring of 2016.

This supply chain-specific approach allowed Counter Culture to geographically isolate climate change impacts, as well as work to develop recommendations that will be tailored to the specific social and environmental conditions, and organizational structure, of each co-op.

It’s clear that climate change is already impacting coffee growing communities across the globe in significant ways. Climate smart agriculture and adaptation practices for farmers developed for the local context are critical for the future viability of specialty coffee.

While each of these projects is tackling these challenges in different manners, several themes emerge from all of them. Technology is at the heart of developing locally-grounded, geographic-specific adaptation practices. Once the local risks are understood, adaptation practices can be developed, ground-truthed, and rolled out through technical assistance, communications, financial products, and other incentives.

Successes are already being demonstrated at the local and national level. But in order to ensure the long-term viability of coffee farming of high quality coffees, these successes must be replicated, scaled-up and mainstreamed across the coffee-growing landscape and throughout each company’s value chain.

Headshot-2Alex Morgan is the Director of Markets Transformation for North America for the Rainforest Alliance, an international non-profit conservation organization. He leads and manages a team that works with companies across the different sectors of our work – agriculture, forestry, tourism and climate – to source sustainably produced goods and services. Alex lives and works in Seattle, where he is an avid backcountry skier and serves on the Board of the Northwest Avalanche Center. He serves on the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Sustainability Council.