How Does Climate Change Affect Coffee?

Climate ChangeBy Hanna Neuschwander

Experts agree that climate change poses a significant threat to coffee. But what is being done about it? A panel of industry leaders convened at Re:co Symposium to discuss just how far we’ve come since climate change first appeared on our radar over a decade ago—and just how far we have left to go.

How does climate change affect coffee? Like many of its tropical cousins, coffee is a “Goldilocks” crop—conditions can’t be too hot, too cold, to dry, or too wet for it to thrive. But climate change is making all of these scenarios more common. And all of them can affect both productivity and quality; two of the most important determents of a coffee farmer’s income.

Other impacts of climate change are more dramatic: droughts and disease epidemics come fast and hard. These quick shocks push farmers away from coffee, and they are happening more frequently. In 2014, an unprecedented drought in Brazil caused the loss of nearly one-fifth of the country’s coffee crop. Ethiopia is in the clutches of one of the worst droughts in 60 years. In Central America, an extended epidemic of coffee leaf rust has led to the loss of 1.7 million jobs.

Still, we have very little hard science about coffee and climate change. Most predictions and models are either not coffee-specific, or are based on limited data. That’s exactly what Aaron Davis, a coffee botanist at Kew Gardens, has been working on. He spearheaded a major project in Ethiopia to map the country’s climate risk, collecting weather and GIS data from dozens of climate stations, conducting interviews with hundreds of coffee farmers, and observing the condition of both wild and cultivated coffee across the country. The project is the most detailed on-theground coffee-specific climate expedition to date. It is already being used to design adaptations for farmers in the birthplace of coffee, and provides a model for other countries to follow as they consider their own climate adaptation strategies.

The solution for coffee and climate change will not be one big, blunt hammer—it will be thousands of tiny hammers, designed to hit very specific nails. That was the core message of Mark Lundy, a researcher at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). Some farmers won’t be affected by climate change at all in the short term; some will need help to adapt—assistance planting new varieties, experimenting with new types of shade, or growing additional crops; and some may be unable to farm coffee at all in the near future. The details matter, according to Lundy, if we are going to design adaptations that really help farmers.

Unfortunately, forests may be one of the biggest losers as climate change advances, according to Bambi Samroc of Conservation International. Arabica coffee in particular likes relatively cool equatorial climates. As the planet warms, higher temperatures are chasing coffee “up the mountains”—right to where fragile, highly biodiverse forests are concentrated. One way to ensure the supply of high quality coffees without harming forests is to stimulate consumer demand for sustainable coffee, something CIAT is working on through its Sustainable Coffee Challenge.

Getting consumers invested in climate change is critical, according to Xavier Harmon of Twin, because it creates the business incentive required to invest in the work of helping farmers adapt. But it will take innovative new models that go beyond certifications. He pointed to the rise of Community Supported Agriculture and its effectiveness in getting consumers invested in where their food comes from and how it is grown. He ended with a clarion call: business as usual is what created the problem of climate change to begin with. To solve it, we have to begin thinking of our businesses in new and unusual ways.

Hanna Neuschwander has been communicating about coffee and science since 2004. She is currently the Communications Director for World Coffee Research.