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by Dani Straughan 5 min read
The world loves coffee. Its uses as the world’s second-most consumed beverage range from spiritual practice to drive thru pick-me-up. Green coffee is one of the most traded commodities in the world, and millions of people rely on the production of coffee for income, from the farmers right down to your neighborhood barista.
Climate change is forcing all of us to reckon with the fact that a lot of things about our day to day life are going to change. Your daily cup of coffee is no different.
While farming is already a somewhat unpredictable industry, the ongoing climate change has made it more so.
According to popular scientific opinion (1), land that is viable for coffee growth is disappearing. Half of the land in use for coffee farming will most likely be unproductive by 2050. Hotter temperatures and heavy rainfall mean it’s harder for coffee plants to survive, and easier for pests and plant diseases to proliferate.
There are many plant diseases, but some can leave a crop in ruin. One of the most serious problems for growers is a fungus called coffee leaf rust—also known as coffee rust. This is a fungus that spreads very easily and can wipe out an entire crop. This can affect the supply chain, and also wreak financial havoc. In more recent years, the problem with coffee rust in Central America has been catastrophic; at one point coffee yields were so affected that the Government of Honduras declared a state of emergency (2).
Coffee leaf rust is spread through spores- this is the same way that mushrooms reproduce. The spores create a powdery substance that grows in clusters on leaves, and spreads to other plants through wind and rain. Heavier rainfall causes the powder to splash and spread far more easily. The fungus starts to attack the plant from the bottom, slowly killing all of its leaves. Fewer leaves mean less photosynthesis, or a malnourished plant, resulting in a lower and lesser quality yield, spelling trouble for the industry.
Another challenge farmers face are insect and pest problems. The most common pests are the coffee borer beetle, the twig borer, and nematodes. All of these common pests affect the coffee tree from the cherry all the way down to its root system.
The changes in climate absolutely impact the ability of these pests to thrive, and the problems they cause can be hard to manage. For example, the coffee borer beetle spends its entire life cycle within the fruit of the coffee tree, which essentially renders pesticides ineffective.
Heavy rain can also create an appealing environment for another parasitic coffee plant dweller, the root-knot nematode. They attack the roots of the plant, and a wet soil environment creates a perfect habitat for population growth. The pesticide used to control them can be toxic to the coffee plant, so it’s an impractical solution. Although there are some potential solutions involving irrigation methods and land use, with climate change, the coffee industry could continue to see examples of hard-to-manage pest problems.
While the impacts of climate change, pests, and disease can be devastating to a farm, and the industry, there are some things that can be done to counter the effects.
The fact that coffee plants can be found thriving in the wild isn’t a coincidence - It’s an insight into possible solutions.
One thing that is different from coffee growing wild and farmed coffee is that it is growing amongst other plants. Some farmers utilize crop rotation and interplanting to diversify the biology in their fields. This allows the soil to regenerate between coffee growing seasons while providing other sources of income through vegetable, fruit and grain crops.
The density of coffee in an area also affects the rate of disease and infestation. If farmers are able to plant in a way that allows more space between coffee plants, this can help with both fungal disease and pest management - it becomes harder for disease to transfer from plant to plant, and providing fewer host opportunities for pests.
Another ecological method for plant maintenance, and one that exists in nature, is the introduction, or preservation, of shade. Shade is a resource with many benefits. It can help offset a rise in temperatures, especially if planted to provide shade over a coffee crop. The cooler temperatures in the shade can provide a better environment for the fruit of coffee trees to survive.
Some studies suggest (3) that coffee borer beetles, in particular, struggle to thrive in shaded environments. If farmers are able to plant trees that provide shade near their crop, this can improve their chances of countering negative impact from pests. Reforestation is also a way to provide habitats for birds and other insects predatory to coffee pests, and many coffee-producing regions are exploring the benefits of forest conservation in their struggle against crop pests and diseases.
If these proposed solutions are sounding a little easier said than done, that’s because they are.
Not only are the logistics of these methods challenging, they're also expensive to implement.
Coffee farmers live disproportionately in poverty (4) compared to all the other players along the chain of production. This is a limiting factor in both their business decisions and in their options for navigating a changing climate. For example, although a microlot farmer may want to preserve surrounding forests, that means less land to grow on and less income for those relying on that farm’s production.
While it is important to consider what can be done from an agricultural perspective, it is also important to look at things from an overall perspective - what changes can the coffee industry make as a whole to help farmers with the negative impacts of climate change?
As long as money continues to impact farmer’s decision making, money will continue to be part of the solution. Change will come at a cost, and will ultimately affect the price you pay for a cup of coffee.
Along the chain, buyers and exporters can make sure farmers are getting a price for their green coffee that allows them the financial freedom to make ecologically sound decisions.
Large coffee companies and micro roasters can choose to work with suppliers that are reputable for compensating farmers adequately.
Cafes can support roasters that are choosing these initiatives. They can also help to do customer outreach and education.
You can choose to support cafes and roasters that support responsible farming and trade practices.
While this may mean a little more money out of pocket for your daily fix, it’s important to understand that paying a few extra bucks now could mean the preservation of coffee as an agricultural product and as an industry in the long term.
Gokavi, Nagaraj & Mote, Kishor. (2020). Impact of climate change on coffee production: An overview. 1850-1858.
2. CWS Emergency Appeal: Coffee rust plague (Honduras) - Honduras. (2013, November 6). ReliefWeb.https://reliefweb.int/report/honduras/cws-emergency-appeal-coffee-rust-plague-honduras
Groenen, D. (2018). The Effects of Climate Change on the Pests and Diseases of Coffee Crops in Mesoamerica.Journal of Climatology & Weather Forecasting,06(03).https://doi.org/10.4172/2332-2594.1000239
Helping Smallholder Coffee Farmers Reduces Global Poverty. (2021, March 8). TechnoServe.https://www.technoserve.org/our-work/agriculture/coffee/