By: Holly Kragiopoulos 13 February 2020
** This article is written by one of the UK’s top ecologists, John Altringham, from the University of Leeds.
Environmental responsibility is something we are very passionate about here at North Star Coffee and we wholeheartedly recognise how vital it is for the production of high quality coffee both now and in the years to come.
To learn more, make sure you follow John on Twitter to stay in the loop with new research and insights**
Climate change is already having an effect on coffee production, the livelihood of coffee producers and the sustainability of the coffee industry. If we don’t act soon to reduce carbon emissions and limit the global temperature rise the situation is likely to deteriorate rapidly.
We can’t predict the future of coffee with detail and certainty because so many factors are involved, but the general trends are clear and business as usual is not an option – even in the most optimistic climate scenarios mitigation strategies are essential. There is no universal ‘fix’ – different regions will require different strategies to try to limit the damage climate change can do.
To produce the best Arabica coffee beans you need the right microclimate – temperatures, light levels and rainfall patterns must be optimal. These conditions are found at high elevations – the best coffee is grown, roughly-speaking, at 1,000-2,000 m. As global temperature rises the land suitable for coffee will be at higher, cooler elevations and the available land area will shrink. On average, coffee production will need to move several hundred metres higher over the next 30 years. Just how much land will be lost and where depends upon a number of factors.
Local topography will be critical: if coffee is already on the highest ground the coffee has nowhere to climb to and coffee production will be lost locally. Current land use is also important, since coffee is in competition with agriculture, forestry and nature reserves – which will all be similarly challenged by climate change. Soil type, local weather patterns and social and economic factors add to a bewildering picture. In some parts of the world over 80% of the land currently occupied by coffee could be lost by 2050.
In most areas the losses will be smaller but significant and there may even be gains in a very few places. Moving coffee to higher ground is likely to be a big challenge, but it is going to be essential in many regions.
Climate change is not just about rising temperatures. Rainfall patterns are changing – drought is becoming more common in many tropical areas and rainfall is increasing in others, often as intense downpours, since the warmer air can hold more water vapour. Extreme weather events are already increasing in frequency and intensity, trends common to virtually all climate models. High winds, heavy rain and spells of unusually hot or cold weather are likely to increase in many regions. High temperatures speed ripening, producing poor quality coffee beans.
Heavy rain, particularly when accompanied by high wind, inhibits flowering, damages trees, destroys crops and increases soil erosion. Heavy rain and drought have both led to major economic loss in recent years and climate models predict both will increase.
However, there’s more to coffee ecology than heat, light and water. As temperature rises pests, diseases and pollinators will also be affected. A study across the coffee-growing regions of the Americas concluded that the number of bee species capable of pollinating coffee will fall in most regions. This is likely to reduce crop yield and quality, since pollination will be less synchronous and less complete.
Over one third of the New World coffee-growing region may see a major reduction in the coffee crop as both suitable land area and pollinators decline. In other areas increased numbers of bee species could help to mitigate against temperature effects, but overall the future looks challenging for New World coffee growers. Broadly similar challenges are expected in other parts of the world.
Higher temperatures are likely to make coffee more susceptible to pests and diseases. The Americas recently experienced the worst incidence of leaf rust disease for 50 years and there have been major outbreaks of coffee wilt in Africa. These can’t be attributed specifically to climate change, but climate change will undoubtedly be a growing contributory factor in the future.
What can be done to fight the effects of climate change? First and foremost we need to listen to and act on the science rather than the self-serving politicians and big business leaders who are stalling the move towards a low carbon economy. Coffee is just one part of the bigger global problem.
More specifically, when it comes to coffee, the development and use of new strains of coffee tree may be critical – ones that are disease-resistant and tolerant of high temperatures and drought, for example. What we don’t need is more of the chemicals whose production and use are contributing to the climate and ecological catastrophe. Growing more coffee under native shade trees is a no-brainer, because it reduces heat-stress and water loss and helps to retain soil. Water loss and soil erosion are already major concerns and climate change will make them worse.
Planting trees ameliorates both, it provides food and shelter for wildlife and captures carbon – why would you not do it?! Even without climate change, the result of growing coffee under shade is better coffee, more sustainable use of the land, more wildlife. Other actions are often simple and obvious – retaining native plants on crop margins that are beneficial to bees and other wildlife, reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides and herbicides. Boosting bee populations with bee-friendly farming practices could prove to be vital in fighting the effects of climate change, as well as being better for the environment in other ways.
What can we do as individuals? We can pay a realistic price for coffee that is grown sustainably, examine the environmental impact of our lifestyle and change the way we behave. We can put pressure on those in power to act on climate change. The future of a cup of good coffee is intimately linked to the health of the planet and our quality of life.
In an earlier blog I said that some plants provide a little shot of caffeine with their nectar to improve the memory of the visiting bees. The bees remember the distinctive scent of the plant’s flowers and return, making them better pollinators. But there’s a sting in the tale – bees high on caffeine are less discerning, so the plant can get away with offering them poorer quality nectar as their reward, which means they make less honey. There’s a lesson in there somewhere…