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New coffee study a wake-up call for billion-dollar industry, coffee lovers and farmers

by Georgina Smith | @georginajsmith | CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture)
Monday, 27 April 2015 12:28 GMT

A coffee farmer in Colombia's coffee producing zone, which is suffering the effects of climate change. Credit: Neil Palmer / CIAT.

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Gourmet Arabica would be significantly hit by a 2 degree temperature rise and rainfall changes, researchers find

Whether you like it frothy, skinny, straight or short, coffee lovers around the world face a wake-up call as the perfect storm brews for their favorite drink, as climate change threatens higher prices and reduced supply.

For the first time, researchers have mapped suitability for Arabica - the most popular, high-quality gourmet variety with a 70 percent of global market share - to see how it will cope in 2050.

The results shows that coffee, which ranks just after oil in its value among traded commodities and is grown in more than 60 tropical countries say authors - with around 400 million cups sipped at each year - will be significantly hit by two-degrees Celsius temperature increases and rainfall changes, with production required to shift to cooler areas to survive.

“We’ve collected enough data to show that coffee farmers must compensate for higher temperatures to survive,” said Dr. Peter Läderach, co-author of the report and senior climate change specialist for the global CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), led by the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

Taking a hike… uphill

Intercropping with trees to provide shade, or moving to higher elevations where it is cooler, can compensate for higher temperatures by two to three degrees, say authors. Generally, coffee will need to move 300 to 500 meters further above sea level depending on location to survive.

That’s feasible in Ethiopia or Kenya along the Great Rift Valley, where elevations reach 2,400 meters above sea level. But in Brazil - the world's largest coffee producer and exporter - coffee is already cultivated at low elevations and can’t shift further upwards. What’s more, its highly mechanized, commercial production is not suitable for intercropping with trees.

Going East…

“That could mean shifting production east - from Central America to eastern Africa and the Asia-Pacific, if strategies are not put in place to adapt,” said Läderach.Brazil can expect whopping 25 percent losses to current production; Nicaragua, El Salvador and Mexico face slashes in production and severe economic impacts in Mesoamerica.

Researchers say a 25 percent reduction in output from Brazil will have a tremendous, transformational impact across the entire coffee sector. Net results will be less global supply and increased coffee prices for roasters and consumers.

But just moving coffee upwards may not always be feasible. Indonesia could see the area suitable for producing Arabica slashed by up to 37 percent. Production could shift to higher elevations, but these typically forested, natural reserve areas are preciously biodiverse.

Action now, researchers warn

CIAT’s partner institutes like the World Coffee Research program are evaluating new coffee hybrids to perform under a wide range of environments - including extreme temperatures.

Information gained by breeders will be invaluable to develop new, climate-resilient coffee varieties tailored to climatic zones. “We expect to know more about how the genetics of coffee can be used to buy more time,” said Dr. Tim Schilling, executive director of the WCR.

Coffee takes around five years to become established and bear fruit. That’s a long-term investment for the 25 million farmers, mostly smallholders, whose livelihoods depend on coffee. “Global supply chain actors along the coffee value chain need to collaborate and fund adaptation efforts,” stressed Läderach.

That’s already happening in Nicaragua. In 2013, adaptation strategies developed by CIAT and partners were included in the country’s national plan, triggering US$10 million in support for the Nicaraguan government to implement them. “Coffee farmers can already feel the heat. It’s time to wake up,” said Läderach. “Or farmers will be forced to find alternatives,” he said.