Coffee growing and climate change

by on October 22, 2006

Coffee (Coffea sp.) requires quite specific growing conditions.  It grows in subtropical regions that have distinct wet and dry seasons.  Although plants can live and produce fruit for decades, drought or heat in summer can diminish production and quality.  And while coffee requires a dry period in the spring, heavy rains in this season can disrupt flowering.

This sensitivity to climatic variables means that global climate change is likely to have profound impacts on coffee growing and production.  An upcoming article in the journal Climatic Change (1) modeled what could happen to coffee production in Veracruz, Mexico if observed trends in climate change continue and coffee prices remain steady.  The report concludes that coffee production will not be economically viable in Veracruz by 2020 due to lowered yields and many current areas becoming unsuitable for coffee growing.

Although there is some work being done on breeding coffee varieties that are more heat-resistant, it will do little to prevent losses due to the climatic instability brought on by global warming (droughts and floods, unusual cold spells) or the pests whose ranges will also change as temperatures rise.  India is already trying to cope with these issues, as this article in Fresh Cup magazine describes.

Farmers will be left with few choices.  Areas at higher latitudes (which although too cool now to grow coffee will become warmer) could be used. However, most small holders do not have the money or credit to buy property, even if it is available to purchase; most land is already under ownership that is passed down in families.  If land upslope is turned into coffee farms, it means some conversion and clearing of existing forest, and the old coffee farms will be converted to other crops, none of which is likely to be as environmentally friendly as shade coffee.  This means a loss of biodiversity, and the deforestation of new and old coffee farms will exacerbate and accelerate warming trends, since trees help sequester carbon and buffer temperature changes.

We all have a great deal at stake as the planet warms. Unfortunately, the poor in developing countries, such as coffee growing nations, often bear a large burden.  Even growers of more heat-tolerant lowland robusta coffee, where it is indigenous, stand to lose their livelihoods, as this graphic illustrates.

The authors of the Veracruz report recommend supporting farmers to move into specialty coffee to help to provide some financial security. Purchasing shade coffee and providing incentive for farmers to plant trees rather than cut them down will also help.  As the Fresh Cup article notes,

In the past several decades, roughly half of the world’s coffee plantations have cut down their trees, or cut down forest to plant unshaded coffee. This decreases the ability of vegetation to counteract global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide, and it also raises local temperature.

All the more reason to stay away from corporate technified sun coffee, and enjoy the superior taste of environmentally-friendly coffee.  I’ll be following the research on climate change and coffee, and report further news and suggestions.

(1) Gay, C., F. Estrada, C. Conde, H. Eakin, and l. Villers. 2006. Potential impacts of climate change on agriculture: case study of coffee production in Veracruz, Mexico.  Climate Change 79:259-288.

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Revised on October 26, 2010

Posted in Climate change,Coffee and the environment,Research on coffee growing

Leopoldo Miranda February 27, 2008 at 1:18 pm

Does anyone knows where to find information about carbon sequestration in coffee plantations?

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