Due to coffee’s adaptation to specific climate conditions, the crop is particularly sensitive to even the most subtle changes in temperature. As global temperatures continue to rise, farms and families are progressively being threatened.
Throughout the globe’s tropics, coffee production is a chief contributor to rural economies. Of the estimated 125 million people around the world whose livelihood depends on coffee, 25 million are smallholder farmers and account for 80% of the world’s coffee production. Smallholder coffee producers lead small, family owned farms on parcels of land less than 24 acres and are responsible for the coffee from planting to post-harvesting. On a successful year, this family operated business can be profitable and sustainable, even when small in scale. However, because these farmers’ incomes are often undiversified, their livelihood depends on the success of coffee yields, an inherently unstable economy due to its dependency on various environmental cues.
In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted temperature increases ranging from 1.6° to 4.0°C in Central America and 1.7° to 6.7°C across South America. This rise in temperature, along with changing precipitation patterns, would raise the minimum altitude for optimal coffee production from the current 2,000 ft to about 3,300 ft above sea level by 2050. This could reduce coffee production zones between 40% – 90% in Central and South America.
Furthermore, increasing temperatures have helped broaden the habitat and proliferation of the coffee rust pest (known as roya in Latin America), a fungus parasite placing incredible stress on coffee plantations and yield quality. Already, Costa Rica, India and Ethiopia have seen a huge decline in coffee yields over the past five years due to this pest which previously did not survive in high altitude mountains. In 2011, the coffee rust pest alone cut El Salvador’s coffee by half and cost the country around 1 million jobs. The Arabica coffee bean, which accounts for about 70% of the world’s coffee and is cultivated in nearly all coffee growing countries, is almost extinct in Asia due to the expanding habitat of the rust pest in recent years. An additional consequence of increasing temperature is that plant metabolism increases and thus coffee grows faster. Although this may sound like a good thing, excessive fruit ripening significantly degrades the coffee quality.
Here’s how climate change is specifically impacting coffee production and livelihoods across the world in the top producing countries around the Bean Belt:
What Can Be Done?
Reduced coffee production and quality may only add a moderate inconvenience in pricing for the average coffee drinker. But for the 125 million coffee growers around the world, these effects are bringing life-changing hardships. Luckily, there are adaptation and resilience strategies that can be employed to reduce the effects of temperature changes. Currently, the most sustainable and effective solution has been the switch to “shade-grown” coffee crops, which has brought many benefits. By growing coffee under trees, farmers ensure that there is wider species biodiversity, making the crops less vulnerable to dominating pests while simultaneously reducing the need for pesticides. Additionally, shade-grown crops promote reforestation of previously cleared land, decrease soil erosion, provide habitat for migratory birds, and also help trap CO2 from the atmosphere. Luckily, this is a strategy that has proved to help both farmers and coffee crops to adapt to climate change.
Half shade grown, half open coffee farm in Brazil.
So what can you do to help sustainable coffee flourish? You can start by paying attention to the coffee you purchase; conduct a quick background check of the brand and the certifications the product has received (if any at all). You can read more about some of the most common coffee certifications here. Look for coffee labeled “shade-grown”, “fair-trade” and “organic” to ensure your purchase is helping people and the planet.
As a buyer, you have the power to support companies and coffee-shops that are committed to both sustainability and fair labor practice. You can learn more about what makes your coffee sustainable and ethical at sustaincoffee.org.
GC Content Writer: Sofia Regalado