Disaster Brewing: Climate Change and Coffee Beans

By Georg Tichy

stratecta beans

Global stakeholders throughout the coffee industry, consumers, foodies and farmers are beginning to understand the catastrophic nature of global climate change: it is not just that the world is in danger, but our supply of high quality coffee beans is affected, and that catastrophe is happening right now. In the highlands of Ethiopia, coffee bean quality and yield had dropped. Costa Rica and India have had similar decreases in yields. Worrisome pests, disease, changes in global weather patterns, and the entire coffee ecosystem teeters on the brink of disaster. What is going on, and, more importantly, what is being done?

Coffee needs a relatively narrow band of climate, weather, and elevation to produce really superb beans, in the quantity needed for global demand. The cloud-forests and fragile, diverse mountain ecosystems that grow the best coffee have a unique blend of temperature, rainfall, sunshine, nurse-trees, companion plants, and pest and disease resistance. Even a change in global temperature of a degree can change rainfall patterns and promote diseases that can impact the coffee crop radically.

For many countries in the narrow tropical zone that supports the coffee ecosystem, this commodity product in one of only two that grow uniquely in these areas- the other being cacao- and entire political and economic systems depend on the revenue brought by this product. Climate change has the potential to destroy the coffee farms across this tropical zone.

What is being done to protect the world from what can only be described as a global catastrophe? The SCA, the Specialty Coffee Association, sponsored a conference in October in Guatemala City to address the challenges and look for solutions. With stakeholders from across the coffee supply chain, the conference, called Avance, sought cross-cultural collaboration and problem solving to address the changes in the industry. Topics under discussion included farm labor and the development of producer’s cooperatives, issues affecting profitability of coffee farms, including new markets outside of traditional commodity markets, and climate-smart practices for farmers. Some of the climate-smart practices, specifically developed to address the impacts of climate change, include reforestation, encouraging diversity, and safe pest and disease control. 

With a goal of sustainability, rather than short term profit, many agricultural organizations are looking at on the ground changes in farming and culture practices that can reduce the negative impacts of climate change to the coffee crop. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture has launched a Sustainable Coffee Challenge that is looking at sustainability through the lens of productivity and quality of the crop, as well as fair labor practices and profitability. Part of the Coffee and Climate Initiative, this organization works with groups of smallholders and farmers throughout the regions that grow coffee, attempting to develop techniques and farming practices that will allow the coffee crop to adapt to the changing climate. The organization is a not-for-profit, based in Columbia, with a global reach and a goal of reducing poverty and hunger through support and education of farmers.

The Coffee and Climate Initiative is a best-practices education and resources center that seeks to provide a open-source model for sharing information and support among smallholders and coffee farms globally. Using a toolbox model, with interactive support and exchange of information, this model is part of a growing effort to include the small farmers and producers in problem-solving and decision-making. Originally developed by a group of coffee producers in Finland, the organization now had global partners and is involved in sponsoring work across the coffee-growing regions in Africa and Vietnam.

Global efforts at support and information exchange are impacted by language. The Avance conference in Guatemala City held sessions in both Spanish and English, and provided translators when needed. The Coffee and Climate Initiative’s toolbox, with articles and exchange, is available in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Vietnamese.

Have an idea about how to divert the coming coffee catastrophe and save the world? Contact us for more information.

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