Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Climate Change & Coffee

Right up front, I'll confess that of necessity this article is speculative.  Climate change is coming, it will certainly affect coffee (and may already be doing so), but we don't know exactly what the future holds.

That said, I'd like to lay out some insights that have emerged as I try to make sense of my online reading and a few real-world conversations.

First, although the map of coffee is shifting, I think that is not inevitably for the worse.

Recent blog posts about the death of Kenya coffee and touching on falling crop yields in Colombia are standout examples of an emerging awareness of the fragility of the current coffee map.  Magnifying the effects of recent crop disasters in terms of global warming, the conversations I've had and articles I've read tend to end on a down note (to put it mildly!).

Climate change, though, is a fickle thing.  Warming climes will expand the coffee latitudes northwards and southwards to regions that have previously been too cool for coffee production.  Fancy a fine Argentine arabica?  What about micro-lots from northern Pakistan? I don't know whether either of these regions would actually be appropriate for cultivating fine arabicas, but I think it's important to note that the coffee map is already expanding.  Where will fine coffee come from next decade?

Altitude is another climate-shaped variable.  An old Reuters article reports that in Costa Rica, 2000 m arabicas are now possible in a region where 1800 m was the previous high.  Meanwhile, lower altitude coffees are struggling.  A stark example of the latter is a depressing map posted by Dr. Hayes-Bohanan of Vanderbilt, ripped from a UN study on Ugandan coffee.

If coffee cultivation begins to move up fragile mountain slopes, that will uncover all sorts of biodiversity challenges for the coffee industry.  Our industry best practices, including labels such as Bird Friendly or Rainforest Alliance certified as well informal direct trade arrangements, will need to be updated to reflect the changing standards required for the new micro-climates in which coffee is cultivated.  In some places, we may need to give up coffee cultivation entirely rather than irreparably damage rare habitats.  Overall, I suspect the biodiversity challenges we've begun to address in the last 15 years will turn out to be the tip of the iceberg.

Finally, I don't think coffee cultivation in warming areas is necessarily doomed.  The key will be managing coffee plant stress in new ways. In the blog post linked above, James Hoffman discusses the development of a new, rust-resistant strain of coffee in Colombia.  Whether or not this particular varietal catches on, the coffee gene pool is a critical resource that is crying out for more attention and protection from the industry.

The standout issue here is the rapid erosion of the coffee gene pool in Ethiopia, coffee's homeland, due to the superior economics of growing khat.  Here are a few insightful posts on the problem: The Khat Economy, and Khat and Development.  While the market is skewed towards robust, quick-bearing, and high-priced khat, the spread of khat can be reversed, as this article from the Yemen Times suggests.  If khat continues to replace coffee, I expect we will lose so much of coffee's genetic heritage that our ability to actively manage coffee's adaption to climate change will be severely constrained.

The other key adaptation for warmer climes lies in innovative coffee cultivation and processing methods.  The previously linked article on Costa Rican coffee cultivation describes emerging best practices of intercropping and shade-growing coffee that reduce stress on coffee plants at lower elevations.  These seem like best practices regardless, and it's encouraging to think that responsible cultivation methods seem to build more resilient coffee cultivation communities.

Here are my conclusions, so far:

1. I think we need to prepare to explore new coffee lands in the next decade.  What does that exploration look like for the specialty industry?  What kind of resources do we need to set aside soon to help construct coffee cultures in emerging coffee lands?

2. In order to manage the challenges to biodiversity that changing coffee cultivation poses, we're going to need some new tools:

  • a new vocabulary covering changing environments, processing methods and standards
  • new cultivation and processing methods
  • conservation principles agreed at all stages in the value chain
  • a new set of evaluation methods, including updated labels

3. I think we need to aggressively address the erosion of coffee's genetic heritage, particularly in terms of the emerging importance of khat in Ethiopia.  One way to address this is simply to pay more for coffee.  Other, more complex mechanisms may be needed, too, such as a type of Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) that incentives the government and communities of Ethiopia to preserve the heritage of coffee for all of us. The proposed REDD scheme of rainforest payments is an example of a PES. More info here and here. Innovative coffee financing instruments may be needed too, providing coffee farmers with some form of security during the bad years that are likely to come more frequently with climate change.

4. Most of all, I think we need to become more involved with coffee farmers and processors as they struggle to adapt to changing climate.  It's too easy to wring our hands and mourn the loss of our fine Kenyans or last year's Harrars.  We need to get our hands dirty and support the communities who have produced these fine coffees.  That will require cycling back some of our profits to the coffee lands, providing resources to help farmers adapt to the threats posed by a changing climate.  Fine coffee is not a lost cause, but the extraordinary challenges posed by climate change call us to be more proactively and positively engaged with the coffee lands than ever before.

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