Climate change is redrawing the coffee growing map. Here’s how farmers are clinging on

Harvesting coffee is a delicate process that occurs just once per year in the plant’s 20 year lifetime, and only after reaching around four years old.

The perennial tree must take root in temperate conditions, and pass a series of milestones before it can blossom.

But climate change is throwing the €458 billion global coffee market – of which Europe represents the largest consumer share – into flux.

What is climate change doing to coffee farming?

Most coffee is produced in highland tropical regions. But researchers have found that rising temperatures could reduce the areas suitable for growing coffee by 50 per cent.

Climate change could reshape the global coffee map.
Climate change could reshape the global coffee map

This redrawing of the global coffee map poses devastating risks; not only to national economies such as Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Brazil, India and Madagascar. It would also crush the livelihoods of coffee farmers – 70 per cent of whom run small-scale operations.

The long lifespan of the tree is a distinct challenge to this majority, explains Dr Christian Bunn from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

Small-scale farmers need to invest in alternative farming methods now to survive in the future, but investments are costly and may not result in the higher production yields desired.

Searching for sustainable alternatives to coffee farming

Indoor farming techniques fall at the pricier end of the investment portfolio.

While Bunn is not aware of any coffee farmers currently adopting vertical, indoor or hydroponic farming methods, researchers are exploring these possibilities.

Vertical farming and indoor farming would allow for greater control of resources like water, light and exposure to wind, all of which can be unruly in the open field.

“Technically it is possible to grow coffee trees, let’s say in a greenhouse,” says Bruno Telemans, a perennial and horticulture crops specialist at the UN’s FAO.

But small-scale farmers face various challenges with vertical farming, including high costs for a low yield that is only available once a year and may sell slowly due to its long shelf-life.

“When you have vertical farming, you have to go to high value crops where the farmer can harvest several crops per year and sell them on a very high value market,” Telemans explains.

Growing coffee in hydroponic systems and vertical farms would be challenged by high energy needs and water management issues, says agriculture engineer and FAO specialist Leone Magliocchetti Lombi.

Farmers fear a second colonisation of coffee

The rise of expensive indoor farming methods may lead to coffee production being relocated to major consumer markets in Europe or the United States.

The market value of raw coffee is relatively low compared to the prices consumers pay, and small-scale farmers generally see the least of those profits.

Whereas wealthier farmers and investors can afford to subsidise the cost of more expensive farming methods like engineered fertilising and drip-irrigation systems. This helps them gain entry to niche premium coffee markets where the bigger profits are to be made.

Endre Vestvik, founder of Ugandan coffee company Wild, fears this would bring a second colonisation of the commodity. “Every coffee that’s being consumed by the coffee lovers there is basically contributing to increasing inequalities in the world,” he says of the Western consumer market.

Instead, Vestvik advocates for farming solutions that bring profits back to origin countries and farmers. “I think the sustainability challenges in coffee can be solved in other ways, and I think they should be solved by the people who now grow the coffee,” he shares.

Can coffee seeds be bred to resist climate change?

Vestvik is partly pinning his hopes on the development of climate-resilient coffee seed varieties. With these breeding programmes, plants can develop tolerance to drought, pests and high heat.

However, FAO agricultural officer Melvin Medina is not overly optimistic about this approach. “A breeding programme on coffee will need years and years of work,” he explains. And coffee is simply not a priority compared to other, more nutritious foods.

Though seed variety may have a part to play, Medina wants to see other sustainable outdoor methods employed first.

“The way forward to sustainable coffee production is really in the field with small-scale farmers looking at water consumption for the production of the coffee,” says Telemans.

How can we rewild coffee?

Shade trees, for example, are used to shield coffee plants from direct sunlight and help steady temperature changes throughout the day.

These extra trees protect the coffee plants from strong winds and upgrade the soil quality, as the leaf litter naturally fertilises the earth. Their deep roots can also promote a deeper infiltration of rainwater so the coffee plant has easier access to water.

New irrigation technologies are another key tool in managing water consumption. Drip irrigation systems allow water and fertiliser to drip slowly to the roots of the plants. Other options include sprinkler systems or micro-jets, though there is little research on how these technologies boost the yield of coffee farms.

Vestvik wants Wild and other coffee companies to eventually rely on nature’s power through rewilding coffee; a conservation practice to restore and protect natural areas. “Coffee belongs in a wild natural ecosystem”, says Vestvik.

Telemans counters that rewilding may be a suitable approach for niche-markets, but romantic for the global coffee market.

What coffee experts do agree on is that adaptations need to be made now, and in ways that are accessible for most producers. How this is done remains up for debate and dependent on the regional context.

“Climate change is already something that we’re clearly experiencing,” says Bunn. “But this is not going to get better, this is going to get worse. So what we’re experiencing now is just a start.”

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