The precarious relationship between coffee & climate change
Coffee is becoming an increasingly costly commodity, not just for us coffee-drinkers, but more so for the farmers producing it. Climate change is a major culprit for the rising social and economic costs of coffee farming.
Climate change affects coffee & farmers
Coffee is a delicate crop with highly specific climate and environmental demands, but climate change has pummeled coffee-growing regions with heat waves, droughts, and pest and disease outbreaks. Coffee faces major climate risks including loss of suitable land for coffee production and shifts to higher altitudes; increased water stress; poor flowering and cherry development; increased outbreaks of pests and diseases, and increased vulnerability of smallholder farmers.
Loss of suitable area and shifting production zones: Research on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions shows that the amount of land for coffee farming may be cut in half by 2050. Not all coffeelands are being impacted by climate change in the same way. Coffee in some high-altitude farms is responding better to the rise in atmospheric CO2 – driver of climate change – since CO2 can actually augment plant growth and crop yields of coffee. Therefore, coffee production at low altitudes is more negatively impacted than that at high altitudes. Farmers can’t easily shift their coffee farms to higher altitudes; relocation is risky and expensive, and could potentially drive deforestation upwards and cause land use conflicts. Lowland coffee plants will be more severely impacted by drought, and water competition between coffee and shade trees is also projected to be severe.
Poor plant development: Climate change is affecting the life cycle of coffee plants. Plants’ biological stages – such as flowering, growing, and ripening – are impacted by temperature, humidity, and light. Drastic climate changes have disrupted plant development schedules, making these stages occur unpredictably. Due to climate change, plants growing in tropical regions, like coffee, are expected to lose several growing days in their usual harvest cycle. In many coffee-growing regions, inconsistent temperatures and rainfall patterns are impacting harvest times and crop quality. Multiple flowering stages per year in some areas have resulted in more harvest cycles and, therefore, higher labor costs. Some coffee plants now abort flowers or fruit due to a lack of moisture in the environment and have undeveloped fruits due to high temperatures during pollination season. High temperatures disturb plant metabolism, so the physiological stress caused by extreme heat can reduce plants’ photosynthetic efficiency.
Diseases and Pests: Higher humidity and warming temperatures are encouraging diseases and pests to thrive in coffee regions. Two devastating fungal diseases, Anthracnose and coffee leaf rust, have been spreading due to an earlier onset of rainy seasons and prolonged wet conditions. These threaten multiple years of coffee yields. Rising temperatures also allow the prolific pest, the coffee berry borer, to reproduce more rapidly in coffee plants.
Increased vulnerability of farmers: 80% of coffee is produced by smallholder farmers, and they’re one of the most vulnerable groups in this climate crisis. Many smallholder farmers are underfinanced and often rely on solely their coffee crop for a living. Climate change pressures on their crops are adding yet another financial stress and exacerbating the uncertain future of coffee market prices.
Conventional coffee farming contributes to climate change & land degradation
Conventional (not organic) agriculture has contributed to the degradation of the world’s topsoils and climate. Agriculture currently contributes up to 25% of the emissions driving climate change, and conventional practices contribute an unfathomable amount of pollution from chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides to the environment. Conventional farms also tend to clear the land of its natural landscape, usually to plant large arrays of monocultures. Organic agriculture is much less damaging to the environment, but cannot alone reverse the damage simultaneously caused by conventional farms. That’s why regenerative organic farming is so vital.
Barista, Coffee Captain, Blogger