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Coffee and Climate Change: Reversing the Downward Spiral

June 01, 2014

 
    Headlines about the effects of climate change on coffee tend to elicit more snickers than expressions of genuine concern. After all, the refrain of "Oh, noes, the coffee is suffering!" really does sound like a poster child First World Problem™. That is, until you remember the millions of people (half a million in Central American and Mexico alone) who rely on the coffee crop to feed their families, and until you understand that the effects go in two directions. Yes, the changing climates are affecting how and where coffee grows, but coffee farming - especially as it has been practiced for the last couple of centuries, has also had an effect on the climate.  

How the Coffee Industry Has Affected the Climate

  When newspapers post stories about coffee and the climate, they nearly always focus on how warmer temperatures and changing precipitation patterns hurt coffee production. This is all very true, especially in regards to coffea arabica, the species that most concerns the specialty coffee world. What's also very true is that coffee production practices have also had a profound effect on the environment and the climate. In particular, the practices espoused by big coffee industry - cutting down native rain forests to make room for more coffee trees, especially -- reduced biodiversity and eliminated vital carbon sinks. In addition, the processing and export of coffee gives it a huge carbon footprint. Just consider how far your coffee has to travel to reach you, and you begin to get the picture of just how much carbon is consumed in the pursuit of putting a cup of joe in front of you.  

How Climate Affects Coffee

  Coffee arabica is a very particular plant. It likes things just so. If the temperature strays just a few degrees outside its optimal range, it shuts down fruit production, or produces stunted beans or drops all its flowers before fruit is formed. It's also very particular about the rain pattern. It's not just a matter of too much or too little rain. The timing of the precipitation also matters. Rain that falls at the wrong time can delay the setting of fruit or contribute to the coffee cherry rotting on the tree -- or encourage rot during processing.   Again, there's more to the story than meets the eye. Coffee producers are already seeing evidence that the coffee-growing belt is moving, that they have to move further up in altitude as lower altitudes no longer produce as well, or at all. Changes in rainfall and temperature produce conditions more conducive diseases like roya (coffee rust fungus) and pests like the coffee borer beetle. At the same time, the sun plantations and monoculture plantings -- orchards of just coffee trees -- have wiped out a lot of the natural defenses against these pests and diseases by removing the environment where birders, spiders and other "friendly" creatures and plants set up shop.  

Synergy and Sustainable Coffee

  Sustainable is one of the biggest buzz words in the specialty food industry, and specialty coffee is no different. The basic concept is to use growing, processing and trading systems that maintain production in the long term. That means avoiding agricultural practices that increase coffee production at the cost of damaging the land and substituting practices that support long-term goals over short-term financial gain. Those practices have typically taken two forms when it comes to climate change:  
  • Adaptation: practices that help producers adapt to the changing climate, maintaining production in the face of higher temperatures and changing rain patterns
  • Mitigation: practices that reduce the damage done to the environment by coffee production
  Over the past couple of years, a new buzzword -- synergy -- has emerged. Numerous stakeholders in the coffee production world have looked at both mitigation and adaptation strategies and found that they intersect - that many of the strategies that help farmers adapt their practices to the changing climate also reduce the damages done by coffee producers. Interestingly, there is a third synergy at work in many of those strategies: many of them also produce higher quality coffee, thus providing more income for coffee producers and encouraging them to continue growing coffee. The best known of these strategies is intercropping - planting other crops alongside coffee trees, as in shade-grown and bird-friendly coffees.  

More Reading on Coffee and Climate Change

  Want to know more? Some of these papers are heavy reading, but there's a lot of information here if you want to learn more about the many ways that coffee growing nations and coffee producers are working together to adapt their crops to the changing climate.  



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