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Coffee Growers Feel Climate Change Effects

coffee-bags-Colombia

The fertile, mountainous terrain of Colombia’s coffee-producing central region is vulnerable to climate change impacts such as stronger storms and hotter temperatures. While at the same time, coffee cultivation is expanding to the United States.

Colombia, the third of the world’s greatest coffee-producing nations sells more than $2 billion USD worth of Arabica beans to countries around the world each year. While this kind of production may make you think about Kansas wheat farms and combines crawling over the field, coffee farms there are generally family-owned and around 5 to 12 acres in size.

Colombian growers, who largely harvest coffee beans by hand, are accustomed to weather-related risks like mudslides and erosion on the mountainsides. Now they are facing disasters attributed to climate change like droughts, flooding, and invasive pests.

Additionally, climate change could halve the area suitable for growing coffee and push production up mountain slopes and away from the equator in just a few more decades.

Coffee Production Land Expected to
Fall Dramatically 

But these pressures are felt by many millions more than just the Colombian farmers. Scientists estimate that total coffee growing land will decrease by 50% by 2050 due to hotter weather and changes to rainfall patterns. They also forecast that wild coffee will become extinct by the end of this century.

If the coffee production risks from climate change occur as expected, this will push yields and quality down. Many countries face substantial economic damage, too. Coffee-exporting countries like Honduras, Nicaragua, Vietnam, and Guatemala are among the most vulnerable to climate risk. Plus, these countries are in the top 10 for climate-related damages since the 1990s.

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New Study Predicts Huge Vegetation Changes 

In a new study published this week in Science, many researchers took a survey of global fossil and temperature records from the end of the last Ice Age to the present. They studied all this data to gauge how global warming changed Earth over the past 20,000 years. Their model suggests that our land-based ecosystems are at risk of another, even faster transformation unless aggressive action is taken against climate change.

“Even as someone who has spent more than 40 years thinking about vegetation change looking into the past … it is really hard for me to wrap my mind around the magnitude of change we’re talking about,” said Stephen Jackson, the lead author of the new study and director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center. His comments were reported in the Washington Post on August 31, 2018.

Jackson has spent most of his career studying ecological changes as the Earth transitioned from an ice age to the current “interglacial” period between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago. His experience suggests that no corner of the planet made it through that upheaval unchanged, but he wanted scientific evidence.

Scientists Analyzed Data From Around The Globe

According to the Post story, he brought together more than three dozen ecology experts from around the globe to assess how vegetation in various regions has altered since the last ice age. The scientists analyzed preserved bits of plant pollen from nearly 600 sites on every continent except Antarctica.

Regions like North America and Europe experienced large temperature increases and underwent large shifts in what plants could grow in different latitudes. Where the temperature changes were more moderate, like around the equator, some ecosystems had a chance of coming through relatively unscathed.

But every model except the one with dramatic reductions in carbon emission, especially the “business as usual” high-emissions scenario, predicts temperature increases of four degrees Celsius by 2100. This means land and sea transformation will be unavoidable.

However, this time instead of moving from cold to warm, the Earth’s temperature is going from warm to way warmer–much faster than anything experienced in the past.

UN Climate Science Report Predicts Dangerously High Temperatures 

As reported last February in Climate Change News, a draft United Nations climate science report, there is really bad news about the warming of the planet. The report says temperature probably will rise into dangerously high levels–an additional 1.5 degrees Celsius or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit–in the 2040s.

This will lead to even higher sea levels, hotter temperatures around the world and new, fiercer weather patterns. Rising temperatures could make much Mexican coffee land unable to support production within the next decade. Nicaragua will lose the majority of its coffee zone by 2050 and Tanzanian Arabica yields are projected to reach critically low levels by 2060.

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A half of a degree change in temperature at the wrong time can make a huge difference in coffee yield, flavor and aroma. Arabica coffee, making up about 70% of global production, is grown in tropical highlands. Lower areas supply Robusta coffee, which is of lower quality and is primarily used in instant coffee products. Robusta is less heat-sensitive than Arabica which performs best at 18-21°C or 64-70° Fahrenheit.

If temperatures rise above 23°C or 73.4° Fahrenheit, the coffee plant grows too fast and fruits too early. This has an impact on bean quality and stresses the coffee plant’s health. Coffee yield and flavor, in addition to pest and disease activity, are tightly linked to weather–especially temperature and moisture.

Southern California Grows Coffee

coffee-cup

Doom and gloom aside for a moment, a warming Earth has a small upside. Farmers are growing coffee beans in the San Diego, California area. The idea first took off in nearby Ventura about a decade ago. Growers have small, one-half to two-acre plots dedicated to Arabica coffee production. They sell to local coffee roasters and coffee shops.

Although the Southern California weather stays hot enough all year to sustain the plants, water–from rainfall or irrigation–is crucial. American coffee producers are farther north than the Mexican growing regions that are already impacted by climate change. The US growers are banking on their temperature rise to be more moderate so cultivation can continue into the next century.

In summary, the impact of climate change means coffee prices will rise and some single origin roasts will become harder to find or no longer grown. As coffee “fanatics” we need to do what we can to minimize our own impact on global warming and ensure our state and federal legislators vote for measures that will slow the planet’s inexorable rising temperature.

Ellie Strand

I'm a geriatric nurse practitioner--in both senses of the word--disabled/retired with a devastating, debilitating neuro-immune-endocrine disease called ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome). All that aside, I'm living as well as I can with it.

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