Coffee and climate have a complicated relationship


This article is part of a special report on Climate Solutions, which examines efforts around the world to make a difference.


Wilston Vilchez, a third-generation coffee farmer in the Nicaraguan mountains, has witnessed drastic climate change on his 25-acre coffee and cocoa farm for years, but when two hurricanes hit in 15 days of the year last, many other farmers he knows realized they had to be part of the solution.

“They may be small farmers, but they believe in doing something different that will benefit them all,” he said.

Mr Vilchez, who also runs an agricultural cooperative of about 300 farmers, said the effects of climate change – rising temperatures, less predictable rainfall, wild passages from drought to flooding, new pests and more – were making more in addition to making it difficult to make a living from coffee, an experience felt by farmers all over the world.

Various organizations and companies are looking for solutions to these challenges. They help farmers improve production and efficiency, develop new strains of beans or cultivate wildlife, and even grow coffee in the lab. Coffee production has a significant environmental impact – estimates vary, but about 39 gallons of water are needed for a cup, according to the UNESCO Institute for Water Education.

However, interviewees in these organizations and businesses, and experts in the field, said that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would be the best way to secure the future of coffee as we know it (or something close to what we know) and the planet. .

According to a 2014 study, in the event of a modest drop in greenhouse gas emissions, around 50% of the land offering favorable conditions for the cultivation of the two main species of coffee, arabica and robusta, which represent 99% of the commercial offer, “could disappear by 2050.. “Brazil and Vietnam, major producing countries, would be particularly affected.

For the billions of people around the world who depend on coffee drinking (to say the least), it portends many rough mornings and possibly rising prices. For the roughly 100 million coffee farmers, not to mention the tens of millions more who work in transporting, packaging, distributing, selling and brewing coffee, the effects of climate change are making life even more precarious. already precarious.

On his farm and across the cooperative, Mr. Vilchez works with Blue Harvest, a Catholic Relief Services (CRS) program, launched in 2014, which helps Central American coffee farmers restore and protect their water resources. , for their benefit and for others who share the downstream watershed.

The program, which builds on the organization’s previous work, began as Central America was in the grip of an outbreak of coffee leaf rust a decade ago. Coffee leaf rust is a fungus that decimates coffee plants, often leaving farmers with little choice: cut their crop and replant, plant something else, or abandon the farm. Some have linked the spread of the fungus to climate change, as it thrives in warmer conditions with more variable rainfall.

As climate change makes droughts both more frequent and more intense, said Kristin Rosenow, agricultural development expert for CRS, more efficient use of water and prevention of pollution of existing sources are critical. ‘of crucial importance.

Mr. Vilchez worked with CRS to restore his soil by planting cover crops. He has also helped other farmers keep more moisture in the soil by planting shade trees, a traditional practice, and using other low-tech solutions, he said, speaking in Spanish translated by a CRS staff member.

Ms. Rosenow said that these types of techniques, among others, like the more targeted fertilizer use, had led to a 24 percent increase in their yields for farmers, and a 28 percent increase in income, including some can be attributed to these techniques and others to access new markets.

Another tactic is to plant different varieties that can better resist both leaf rust and other climatic stressors, according to Hanna Neuschwander, director of strategy and communications at World Coffee Research.

Next year, World Coffee Research will launch a global breeding network, which aims to introduce modern breeding techniques and new varieties to coffee-producing countries to help farmers cope with new climatic conditions. Based on the information obtained, the organization will assess the performance of the new species in different environments around the world, a kind of real-time laboratory test.

But there are challenges. When a farmer plants a coffee tree, it takes him several years to earn money. And because coffee trees can live for decades, a tree that is suitable for today’s climate may be totally unsuitable for future conditions, said Vern Long, managing director of World Coffee Research.

A possible benefit, Ms. Long added: Coffee farmers would not have to expand or move to higher elevations which may be more appropriate in the future, but could be heavily forested and rich in biodiversity, resulting in a loss of carbon sequestration potential and animal and plant habitat.

At the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London, Aaron Davis, a coffee scientist who also specializes in climate change, is working on a different solution to ensuring sustainability: to introduce farmers to species of wild coffee that were not widely cultivated before, or at all, but are more tolerant of high temperatures and drought.

“Being a botanist and having done some work in climatology, I cannot stress enough that the species traditionally used will not suffice,” he said. “If you look at the models and projections of climate change, we need robust resilience and incremental change, not incremental change. “

Maricel Saenz is also interested in gradual change, but in a different direction. She is the founder and CEO of Compound Foods, a “bean-free” coffee company that aims to produce coffee in a laboratory environment.

Ms Saenz, 29, is from Costa Rica, so naturally coffee and her future are important to her, she said. “It’s a really complex situation, because coffee is one of the main victims and contributors to climate change,” she said, citing the energy and water needed to grow, transport and brew a cup. of coffee.

Compound Foods doesn’t grow coffee, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, the company reproduces microbes from real coffee cherries, which give a cup of coffee its flavor and aroma, Saenz said. The microbes are grown on their herbal formula in bioreactors, a fermentation process similar to what happens naturally on a coffee plantation.

For now, this results in a cold brew style extract that mimics the flavor, color and smell of real coffee, but with much less energy and water. They plan to distribute this first product in coffee shops next year and later create coffee grounds that can be brewed at home.

When asked how her business might affect the small farmers who grow most of the world’s coffee and often struggle to make a living, Ms Saenz said she hoped to compete with the large industrial farmers and find ways to support the farmers she cultivated. knowing that.

In the short and long term, that can mean tackling the root cause itself: greenhouse gas emissions.

As Vincent Amodoi, Uganda project coordinator for Farm Africa, a UK charity that works with East African farmers, ranchers and forest communities, including coffee growers, said: “For me , climate change should be one of the main goals for everyone. governments around the world, and this is simply not the case.

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