Coffee and climate: The development imperative for smallholders

By Naki B. Mendoza 29 June 2016

Coffee cherries grow in Cauca, Colombia. Across the world, coffee farmers are threatened by the impact of climate change on their trade, with smallholders facing especially daunting prospects. Photo by: Neil Palmer / CC BY-SA

When it comes to climate change, very little, if anything, is immune from its effects and one of the world’s most beloved crops is certainly no exception.

Across the world, coffee farmers are threatened by the impact of climate change on their trade, with smallholders facing especially daunting prospects. 

The effects may be apparent within the industry, but recent studies have been putting the severity of the issue into focus for consumers. For example, a study last year by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, projected that Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia and Colombia — which combined account for 65 percent of global arabica bean production — will experience “severe losses” unless steps are taken to change the genetic makeup of coffee crops or the way in which they are grown.

Like many climate change risks, the effects are most acute at the local level and vary from region to region. They are also complicated by many uncertainties — the nature of climate change means that its disruptions are neither consistent nor predictable. Smallholder farmers will need to work alongside private industry and the development community to mitigate the damage in the most direct way possible — targeted, local agricultural solutions.

Managing the extremes

There are various dimensions to the coffee and climate change problem, but overcoming many of its challenges largely boil down to increasing the crop’s resilience to extreme weather conditions, said Peter Baker, chief scientific adviser to the Initiative for Coffee and Climate, a multistakeholder collaboration.

Extreme weather differs across the world’s coffee growing regions — areas in the tropics at moderate-to-high elevation. “East Africa will get wetter over the long-term, but things are getting dryer over the short-to-medium term,” Baker said. “Colombia, meanwhile, has tended to get wetter while other places are getting dryer.”

A crosscutting trend in Central America is that the cooler elevations that are optimal for growing coffee have been rising as sea-level ground temperatures get warmer. “Areas that are 1,700 to 1,800 meters above the elevation threshold are suddenly viable,” said Michael Sheridan who directs the Borderland Coffee project for international aid group Catholic Relief Services.

But the problem is that land becomes more scarce as farmers push further up the mountain. And rising temperatures make growing conditions on existing lands increasingly difficult.

The mix of suddenly warmer mountain temperatures and higher elevation rainfall patterns also make coffee plants more susceptible to leaf rust — a fungus that attacks and destroys the plant.

Guatemala, for example, was hit by a damaging outbreak of leaf rust in 2012 in which some growers lost up to 85 percent of their coffee plants, according to CRS.

Because the effects vary across regions, the proposed solutions to address them must be locally driven. Baker, for example, employs a “triangulated” approach to his risk assessments that pieces together scientific observations with the firsthand accounts of coffee farmers. “The farmers are pretty much right,” he said.

Common interventions to build crop resilience include managing the soil’s moisture and temperatures either through forest canopies, shade tree plantings or mulch coverings. Planting coffee trees along natural terrace structures can also prevent erosion and allow for better management, according to Shauna Mohr, a sustainability manager for Volcafe, a Swiss coffee trading firm.

“Sometimes they’re not revolutionary — they’re just good practices that will build resiliency today and five or 10 years from now,” Mohr said.

Mitigating the effects of climate change through a series of small-scale interventions, coffee experts said, is all that can be done, considering the enormity and unpredictability of the issue.

Yet even those prescriptions are riddled with uncertainties. “It’s difficult to give hard advice because we don’t know how things are going to unfold,” Baker said. “In a few weeks weather patterns can shift.”

Technical assistance for smallholder coffee farmers is now packaged to be what Baker calls a “decision support system,” or a cache of options for farmers to choose from on the types of interventions to pursue, taking into account the risks and unknowns of climate change.

Working together

International coffee companies throughout the supply chain — from buyers, to roasters and distributors — are both expected to be, and some believe must be part of the solution. Many of them already invest in farmer training and agricultural resilience for the benefit of their supply chains.

Volcafe, for instance, deploys agricultural teams that provide on the ground technical assistance to smallholder coffee farmers. Nespresso, which sits further down the value chain, is engaged in various training initiatives in partnership with development agencies. And, according to Baker, many smaller privately owned coffee companies in Europe have been directing funds towards similar ventures.

“But I feel there’s still not enough urgency at the moment,” he said.

Some of that criticism may be misplaced. Decisions to invest in initiatives that reduce the impact of climate change in coffee crops are not cut and dry for the private sector. There are myriad opportunity costs to consider for any intervention, which are shaped by the complex nature of climate change.

“Because it’s fundamentally unpredictable, it’s hard to know how to take on climate change when you have many challenges ahead of you that seem more immediate,” Mohr said.  “Overpopulation, urbanization of coffee growing regions and migration out of coffee growing regions are happening right now that have to be addressed today.” All trace in some way to climate change or are amplified by its impact, she said.

Multistakeholder initiatives are underway to strengthen the security of coffee farming and are among the best tools to address the multidimensional nature of climate change on the industry, experts say. “In the end it is political. It is trying to build consensus around land use patterns and a lot of work finding common ground,” says Sheridan. “There are a lot of different agendas.”

In many ways the complexities of coffee and climate change lend themselves to a partnerships-focused model of development. Agricultural security and the strengthening of coffee value chains reflect the how development challenges can intertwine and be best approached through multistakeholder collaboration.

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About the author

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Naki B. Mendozamfbmendoza

Naki is a reporter for Devex Impact based in Washington, D.C., where he covers the intersection of business and international development. Prior to Devex he was a Latin America reporter for Energy Intelligence covering corporate investments and political risks in the region’s energy sector. His previous assignments abroad have posted him throughout Europe, South America and Australia.


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