Act: Inspiration

The Fight to Save Coffee from Climate Change Heats Up

March 27, 2019

Climate change is threatening coffee in Central America. Temperatures are rising, making it harder to grow high-quality Coffea arabica in the altitudes where it is currently grown. Rains are becoming erratic and unpredictable, sometimes leading to flooding and other times resulting in drought. Climate change has also been blamed for the spread of coffee pests and diseases, like coffee rust, which has been causing major problems to Central American coffee production since 2012.

The trouble with coffee

“I would say climate change is the single most important threat to coffee production that we see over the long run,” says Hanna Neuschwander.

Neuschwander is the communications director for World Coffee Research, a non-profit research and development organisation founded by a number of industry groups such as Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Counter Culture Coffee and the Speciality Coffee Association of America. And right now, their research is mostly focused on how to keep coffee growers in business as the climate changes.

Coffee is under immense pressure from climate change. While there are 124 wild species of coffee, only arabica and robusta are grown commercially. Wild species are significantly in decline, with 60% at risk of extinction, impacted by deforestation, pests and pathogens as well as climate change. Temperatures are rising and rains are becoming unpredictable in the regions where it is currently produced. Although these wild species are not cultivated and harvested, their unique traits could help breeders create varietals that can grow well in drought or higher temperatures.

Central America is one coffee growing region especially vulnerable. Guatemala, which is projected to produce 3.3 million 60-kilogram bags in 2019, is consistently listed as one of the world’s top 10 countries most affected by climate change. The most at-risk farmers are smallholders, those with just a few hectares of land who are barely able to make ends meet. Worldwide, 12 million of the smallest farmers produce less than 20% of the world’s coffee, while just 1.5 million farmers, who own huge swaths of land, produce nearly 65% and have the best yields and the most money to reinvest into their farms.

The Trifinio region, which encompasses parts of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, is dealing with instability when it comes to coffee. Farmers in this region primarily grow arabica coffee, a higher quality coffee than robusta. Arabica is generally grown at around 1,300-1,500 meters above sea level. It can grow at a maximum temperature of around 32 degrees Celsius but prefers 18-22 degrees.

The current altitude where this coffee is grown is becoming hotter, with higher mean and maximum temperatures. In order to keep growing arabica coffee, farmers must move to higher altitudes, assuming such an option is available. In Guatemala and Honduras, farmers could move uphill but many cannot afford to. In addition, the higher altitudes are currently forested, and if farmers move upwards to plant coffee, they will have to cut the forest down to do so. Deforestation is already taking place, releasing greenhouse gases and further accelerating climate change.

In addition, the distinction between the region’s ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ seasons is fading. It’s raining more during the dry season and staying drier longer during the wet season, and there are more extreme rain and weather events, such as hurricanes.

“The rainy season is shortening,” says Ivan Ricardo Morales, a 63-year-old coffee farmer in Santa Rosa, Guatemala. “It rains the same amount as before, but in a shorter period of time.” He is the owner of Finca El Carmen, a nearly 100-hectare farm he runs with his son, Rigoberto.

When the rains come too early, plants flower prematurely and then abort when the rains abruptly stop again. When the rains don’t come at all, plants die of thirst. In addition, when rains come all at once, this can cause flooding that washes out roads, making it difficult for farmers to get their coffee to market. It can also make it harder to dry coffee beans because it rains when it should be sunny.

Coffee commodity prices are also currently very low, hovering around $1.00/pound, significantly down from 2011, when prices reached nearly $3.00/pound. Ivan and Rigoberto sell some of their coffee in the specialty market, to roasters and shops that put a premium on a certain quality of beans and are willing to pay higher prices. The specialty market offers the father and son a fixed price contract of between $2.20-$2.50/pound, over double the commodity price. But not all farmers have this option, and the very low price adds another layer of difficulty in coffee production.

The elder Morales has been working on his coffee farm since 1975. Before, he says, coffee farmers knew how to produce coffee and it was easy. Now, thanks to climate change, farmers need to learn how to adapt. 

Struggling to adapt

Adaptation or mitigation? These are the two responses to climate change that Previn Valdiviezo outlines for a group of scientists, farmers and agricultural instructors at a training on climate-adapted coffee growing in Chimaltenango, Guatemala. Mitigating climate change could include actions like lowering carbon emissions by planting forests to trap carbon in soil. Adaptation, on the other hand, means trying to fit our actions into the already-changing climate, by modifying agricultural practices or moving to new locations.

Valdiviezo is a technician with a project called coffee&climate, run by the Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung Foundation, which is focused on the adaptation side, working to change coffee growing in order to make it more resilient in the face of climate change. The project has been rolled out in a wide range of coffee growing countries, including Brazil, Colombia, Tanzania, Vietnam and the Trifinio region.

“Climate change is complex,” says Pablo Ruiz, regional coordinator for coffee&climate. “One year it’s a drought, the next year it’s too much rain. Climate change is this uncertainty.”

This uncertainty and change means that there is no one size fits all approach to growing coffee in the midst of climate change, so groups like coffee&climate are working on a number of climate-adapted methods to keep coffee cultivation alive in Central America. To lower soil temperatures in order to keep their plants healthy, coffee&climate has introduced cover crops and recommended that farmers change the spacing of their coffee plants in order to accommodate growing Brachiaria. This grass can help lower the soil temperature in less shaded areas and can be cut and used to protect soil where the coffee roots develop. It can also help prevent erosion.

They’ve also implemented the use of quick-growing shade trees, which can also help lower the temperature of the soil and in some cases, provide additional sources of income when the shade tree is something productive such as banana or macadamia. Some farmers plant quicker growing trees, like gandul, also known as pigeon peawhich can provide shade in as little as six months. Shade-grown coffee is more sustainable in its production methods utilizing agroecological techniques, and it now commands a premium price.

Other climate-adapted practices include the use of beneficial fungi like Trichoderma, which promotes plant growth and can help fight off certain plant diseases; adding gypsum to the soil to help roots grow deeper; monitoring soil temperature and shade cover through affordable technology such as phone apps or smart buttons buried at different depths in the ground; grafting arabica plants onto hardier robusta rootstock; and planting hybrids that are drought or rust resistant.

There are also interesting new technologies to improve coffee growing in the face of climate changes. Climate Edge, a company based in England, is creating affordable weather stations that coffee farmers and cooperatives can use to measure conditions on their farms. Customized software will then provide recommendations based on the climate data from the station.

There is no one thing that will save coffee in the face of climate change, according to Christian Bunn of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), another organization working on improving how coffee is grown. “Sustainability [isn’t about] a single practice, but a whole suite of interventions to prepare everyone involved for higher uncertainty, and unexpected or catastrophic events.”

The future of coffee

While these new technologies and practices offer hope, they are by no means a quick fix. For one thing, not all farmers are aware of these practices or have access to them. This is why, according to Ruiz, keeping farmers growing coffee isn’t just about technology; it’s also about organisation.

“It’s important that the producers learn to organize,” he says. “We can’t train them one at a time. The ones that don’t organise will be isolated.”

Cooperatives are important in this way. They can provide training, loans and equipment, and by being organised, farmers can purchase things in bulk and reduce costs. In addition, practices being implemented currently, must be sustainable for the next few decades. “A coffee tree that goes into the ground now is going to bear the full brunt of climate change over the next 30 years,” Neuschwander says.

Ruiz and Neuschwander both feel that the goal is to make coffee growing more profitable for smallholder farmers, so that they do not abandon the crop altogether. If coffee continues to be more expensive to produce and less profitable to sell, farmers will look elsewhere for opportunities, either by growing other crops or by leaving the countryside altogether for urban centres and urban jobs.

“We have this very lofty but very informed and reasonable goal,” says Neuschwander. “That coffee can be attractive [professionally] and can be a good livelihood, but it requires investment in agricultural innovation.”

Photograph: Nestle 

Stephanie Parker

Stephanie Parker is a writer, photographer, and translator living in Silvaplana, a tiny town in the Swiss alps. Born and raised in New York City, Stephanie left the city life behind for good in 2011 to travel in Central and South America. Her experiences there helped lead her to complete an MA in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism at the University of Montana, where she did an in-depth reporting project on coffee rust fungus in Nicaragua. After two years working in communications for a USAID-funded international agriculture project, she is now a full-time freelance journalist focusing on food, agriculture, invasive species, and social justice.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, climate change adaptation, sustainable coffee growing