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Cocoa Could Fill In as Arabica Loses Ground to Climate Change, Research Suggests

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Amidst predictions that much of the currently suitable land for growing arabica coffee will become unsuitable in the coming decades due to climate change, new research suggests cocoa may help fill the gap for some coffee producers in Central America and Mexico.

Published by researchers with academic affiliations throughout Northern Europe and Mesomerica, the study concludes that half of the current coffee plantations that are vulnerable to a warming climate  — in the study area from Panama to Central Mexico — could be replaced by cocoa.

“This opens a window of opportunity for climate change adaptation,” Kaue de Sousa of the Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences wrote as lead author of the study. “The interest of smallholder farmers in cocoa is growing, driven by the vulnerability of coffee in the changing climate. Now we have to build capacity among smallholders to adapt their crop systems successfully.”

Adding to the potential challenge for coffee producers is another key finding in the study, that nearly 80% of the tree species currently part of agroforested systems in the study area will “drastically shrink” due to climate change. The researchers said those tree species include fruit trees such as mango, guava and avocado, and timber trees, as well as an estimated 56% loss in nitrogen-fixing trees, which have the ability to enhance soil health.

“Despite the concerning decrease in tree suitability, our study provides alternatives for coffee and cocoa agroforestry under the climate emergency faced by farmers today,” de Sousa said.

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Potential areas in Mesoamerica where cocoa (Theobroma cacao L.) can replace coffee (Coffea arabica L.) under climate change (RCP 4.5). Dark blue indicate vulnerable areas for coffee that can be replaced by cocoa. Light blue indicate areas suitable for coffee and cocoa. Red indicate vulnerable areas for coffee where cocoa is not an alternative under climate change. Light yellow indicate remaining areas for coffee where cocoa is not suitable.

The study does include a list of sample tree species that could be well-suited for canopy cover, soil health and other factors that could lead to less volatile micro-climates amidst warming. In addition, the authors note that farmers will need access to suitable coffee plants themselves through seed research and distribution.

All of this, of course, requires collaboration, money and time — resources with which few of the millions of farmers throughout Mesoamerica are flush, especially in this time of coffee price crisis.

“Transforming agroforestry systems by changing tree species composition remains the best bet to adapt most of the coffee and cocoa farms across Mesoamerica, the study recommends,” according to a summary from the sustainability science NGO CGIAR, which was partially involved in the funding of the research. “This would involve urgent changes to land use planning, incorporating diversified tree species and including underutilized species into redesigned agroforestry systems. The seed sector also needs to step up by offering farmers seeds and seedlings of the most suitable tree species for each climatic zone. Farmers also need to get on board.”

At several points throughout the study, the researchers acknowledge the market- and infrastructure-related constraints on coffee farmers. Yet solutions, they suggest, must also be driven by farmers.

“Farmers need to rethink current agroforestry species composition and use a portfolio that is suitable in the future climate. This is a challenging task, because it takes a long time for farmers to see their investments bearing fruit,” wrote de Sousa. “We identified that this potential may rely on currently underutilized tree species, such as June plum, sapodilla and breadnut; species that are currently present in coffee and cocoa systems, but in low densities, as they are mainly remnants of previous farm vegetation rather than being actively planted and managed by farmers.”

For more information, see the full study published in Scientific Reports.

Comment

5 Comments

Ken

The truth is that no one knows if climate change can do more good than bad. Quit making it a bad thing. Most of your scenarios probably won’t play out the way current science can foresee. Do not make climate change a bad thing. It is not. Seems like the whole ecosystem science is an old old pagan religion. Think on that. The farmers will more than likely find better more productive answers to any climate change problems than current science could ever do.

P

Ken is wrong, climate change is happening and already having significant effects in this region.

However there’s a lot wrong with this paper – it states that mid-altitudinal coffee areas are between 400–700 m a.s.l. but in reality there is virtually no commercial Arabica at such low elevations because mean annual temperatures are well above coffee’s life-zone limits.

The paper depends on long term means of 1960-1990 which are very out of date, considerable warming has already occurred since that period. Also there are increasingly extreme droughts across parts of the region which lead to major rainfall deficits in the dry season.

Additionally, the validity of the coffee distribution data must be questioned: such modelling should be validated by ground-truthing. Whereas there may be a few trees in a locality, this does not mean they are capable of producing commercially viable harvests.

Ken Schweikert

I have a question for everyone. Do coffee prices rely on supply and demand? If so, tell me why prices are low? If for some reason they do not rely on supply and demand let us know. Next question, if supply of coffee is low like it should be with all the drought and climate problems why are the prices low and still there is an abundance of delicious grown coffees from lower regions all the way up to high elevations? Matter of fact the super tasting Brazils are even more plentiful. Climate has always been changing people, lets not over think it. I’ve been known to be wrong, but at least i can be corrected.

P S BAKER

It’s a fair question; the answer is largely expansion (deforestation) and high tech coffee production (mostly Brazil)

E.g this newly released overview: https://arcg.is/0faerm which speaks of ‘astronomical’ deforestation in Honduras.

The problem has been mostly poorly covered however – coffee industry people I’ve talked to mostly don’t want to know, but this reviews the situation:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273445289_Global_Coffee_Production_and_Land_Use_Change

The situation is the same for other commodities like cocoa, which gets a hammering here:
https://storage.googleapis.com/planet4-international-stateless/2019/06/2beb7b30-gp_countdown_to_extinction_2019.pdf

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/13/chocolate-industry-drives-rainforest-disaster-in-ivory-coast

Coffee is not covered, but this will change in the near future I believe.

As for “an abundance of delicious grown coffees from lower regions all the way up to high elevations” – I don’t think that is generally true, we see abandonment of coffee at low elevations in Colombia for example and an analysis of Cup of Excellence finalists for Colombia, Nicaragua and Honduras shows that they are coming from progressively higher elevations in recent years.

Ken Schweikert

As a roaster of greens, the only times we have seen shortages that i recall is when there was too much rain but there was still a supply from that region. The most recent in mind was Indonesian Sumatra. All over the world we have not experienced a “can not be purchased due to climate change or global warming). So what i am getting at is the people that fear shortages are fearing.

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