Coffee production is currently under a serious threat that could drastically change the coffee we drink each day and potentially leave our cups dry.
Coffee trees cover an estimated 11 million hectares of land throughout the tropics. Farmers harvest ripe emerald coffee cherries by hand and meticulously process them until the seed is ready to be roasted.
Outside of some large farms in Brazil and elsewhere, farmers who steward the world’s coffee lands do nearly all their work by hand, from planting to picking. These farmers get by on razor-thin margins and often sell coffee for less than their production price. Yet the challenge of producing coffee doesn’t stop there.
Of the 124 known species of coffee, 99% of the coffee produced and consumed today comes from just two species: arabica and robusta. The genetic diversity of coffee is remarkably low for a crop of such importance. The diversity of genes within a plant population increases the possibility of adaptation to changing climate and disease pressure. Coffee’s limited genetic diversity leaves the crop especially susceptible to climate change and diseases.
Coffee grows in a narrow strip from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn, often referred to as the “coffee belt” or the “bean belt.” Within this geographic climate zone, coffee trees thrive within specific microclimates consisting of the ideal altitude, rainfall, moderate temperature, and adequate shade.
Coffee trees are uniquely sensitive to climate and quickly decline in conditions outside their optimal range. Because of their sensitivity, coffee trees will be heavily impacted by a changing climate. Within the next 25 years, their suitable climate is predicted to be reduced by half.
- Research Says Climate Change to Erase More Than 50% of Suitable Coffee Land by 2050
- Research Concludes Climate Change Affects Coffee Quality, Not Just Yields
- Fairtrade Report Projects Financial Disasters to Farmers Due to Climate Change
As coffee has become more intensively produced over the decades, shade has been removed, and the heavy use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides has become the norm. This has degraded the formerly rich ecological capital of these systems and further exacerbated climate-driven changes.
While slowing a changing climate is a gargantuan problem to tackle, restoring microclimates for better plant health is not only possible, it can be achieved relatively quickly. A stable microclimate for coffee — including diverse shade trees and functional, living soil — can help buffer the effects of a changing climate.
In addition to climate change, there are several diseases that regularly pose threats to coffee production. The most pressing currently is coffee leaf rust (CLR), a pathogenic fungus that infects coffee leaves, essentially shutting down the plant’s ability to photosynthesize, produce nutrients and sustain fruit. Left unchecked, leaf rust can decimate entire farms.
In 2012, rust spread to Latin America and reached pandemic proportions, causing an estimated $1 billion in crop loss and damage to trees. With livelihoods and entire economies at stake, governments and organizations rapidly deployed fungicides and removed infected trees, saving many farms and abating the spread. This event provided a major impetus for the further development of rust-resistant coffee varieties.
By 2017 Honduras had aggressively adopted rust-resistant varieties. One such variety, Lempira, accounted for 42% of all the coffee trees in the country. Despite those efforts, a rust outbreak hit the country and severely infected the Lempira variety.
Some efforts are underway to breed coffee to enhance its disease resistance, yet breeding coffee is a painfully slow process. Breeding starts by crossing genetically distinct parents, the offspring of which is called a F1 hybrid. These hybrids are known for their vigor, yet lack stability in their traits. Breeding a stable coffee variety can take upwards of 15 years.
Meanwhile, there are currently 40 known strains of rust, and likely many more on the way as fungi have a knack for mutation.
While breeding may be a part of the long-term solution for coffee in the face of a changing climate, there are some other immediate and affordable actions that can improve coffee’s resiliency.
Coffee trees are native to the forests of Ethiopia, where they have grown and evolved amongst a diversity of shade trees. As global coffee production has become more industrialized, farms have removed shade trees, increased the density of coffee trees and introduced a slew of chemical fertilizers, fungicides, and herbicides to maintain production.
In short, the coffee industry has destabilized the two pillars of successful coffee production: a diversity of shade trees and healthy soil.
Coffee agroforestry systems blend the diversity and structure of the forest with the production of coffee. This essentially mimics the natural habitat of coffee trees but can be intentionally designed to include other fruits, nuts, honeybees, and even high-value hardwood trees.
Thus, agroforestry systems have the potential provide additional revenue streams, resilient microclimates that buffer larger climatic events, and the innate disease and pest control of a complex ecology.
Healthy soil has a regenerative effect that compounds over time to create more life within a system. This works on a scale of weeks, months and years.
Even the perfect hybrid tree is only as healthy and vibrant as the soil in which it grows. Breeding can and should be part of the solution, yet it is in no way a silver bullet. Betting the future of coffee on the success of hybrids creates is a risk, especially if it further consolidates power rather than responding to on-farm realities.
For coffee to continue as we know it, farmer-led agroforestry systems, built on a foundation of soil and plant health, must become the norm. This can reverse a trend of farmland degradation, improve coffee quality, provide farmers with much needed additional revenue streams, lessen and even eradicate disease pressure and contribute to climate change mitigation on a local and global scale.
This movement is already underway, yet it will require increased awareness for meaningful change globally.
More coffee roasters need to understand this issue so that they can buy coffee from farms like Finca San Jeronimo, a regenerative coffee farm in Guatemala; more consumers need to know that their coffee purchases make a difference; and more of the voices working within this movement, on the ground, need to be heard so we can change the discourse in the coffee industry echo chambers.
Your future cup of coffee depends on it.
[Editor’s note: Daily Coffee News does not publish paid content or sponsored content of any kind. Any views or opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by Daily Coffee News or its management. Do you have a story idea for DCN? Share it here.]
Sam Knowlton is an agronomist and founder of SoilSymbiotics. He consults worldwide with farms and leading agrifood companies. Sam specializes in designing regenerative coffee farming systems. Learn more and connect here: www.samknowlton.co
… and what about the conditions faced by producers? yes, natural conditions are important and how about the conditios of human beings working on the land?
hi , please tell something about the robusta plantations in honduras.
is it like veracruz/mexico?
I am amazed that the idea of world climate taking a dump in the next few years is believed by so many. Our world climate is and always has been changing throughout time. There is not going to be an instant where all life doesn’t exist unless we blow ourselves up. We evolve constantly and we change as we need to to continue life as we know it.
Secondly, coffee farmers has existed for almost 2,000 years. Why is it since the last 25 years that specialty coffee has taken off, that farmers are now destitute and failing miserably? Shouldn’t we all continue to better ourselves and progress in the products we sell? If I’m in the same, or worse condition that my grandfather’s farm was 50 years ago, then maybe I need to better my farm. There is more technology and ways to grow better products today then ever before. Giving everyone more money is not the answer. Teach and provide the means as education to help the farms. Money is not the answer. Hand you own kid a $100. And see what they do with it. Are they better for it? Help them learn a new idea or trade and see what happens. I added this as my opinion. Please don’t start a war of words to prove your point. Post you ideas and let’s see what we can do. Thank you
Surprised that the author doesn’t mention India since (A) the norm there is for coffee to be grown in agroforestry systems and (B) many of the varieties cultivated are crosses/hybrids developed to resist disease.
Bravo Terry! Let people live in freedom, especially in knowing how to avoid the pit falls of the false consensus crowd. We should be concerned with following God’s plan more than the idolatry of man saving the earth by making a new false religion. The global warming cultists need to wake up, there are bigger fish to fry that will have a better impact on people and coffee farming. Like you said we have tech and science to make things go smoothly. Seems like every time we look there’s another sticker to put on our coffee bags to impress some green cultists. Let the farmers produce delicious coffee without the shame. Give them the tools and stay the heck out of the way. Stop indoctrinating our coffee businesses with poopy garbage.
Wow, people are serious about talking about God in the context of changing climate. Middle age here we come…
Think Global Act Local
Global warming or Global cooling or Climate Change? They are all just words and ways the World Cabal try’s to control people!
Man is not responsible for the weather! God is in complete control! Read your Bible!
There will be Earth Quakes and many more things happening as told by God!
When we forsakes God, He punishes us !
No vamos a superar la crisis de la producción de café , sino superamos el despojo económico de los cultivadores. Las multinacionales tostadoras de café , tienen dominado el mercado del producto final al consumidor y no les importa que el cultivador apenas sobreviva en condiciones paupérrimas a partir de su cultivo. Esto es lo primero que debemos aclarar; mientras tanto , todo lo que se diga es discurso estéril y farragoso. Acabemos con el despojo!!
today is world earth day:
There must be some sort of bat signal that draws the crazy right wing religious wackos to any article that mentions climate. Terry, Ken, did you even read this article?
Here’s the thing about climate change: whether you deny it or not, the impacts will be felt in agriculture, migration, real estate, infectious disease, etc. so go ahead and deny it, I really don’t care about your beliefs.
But that is a digression from this very informative article that aims to help coffee lovers like myself understand what is in my cup, what it takes to get the beautiful plant to turn into a beautiful morning drink, and to acknowledge all of the threats along the way that could mean that we all have to roast okra seeds or some such crap in twenty years in order to get going in the morning. So, thank you Sam.
One of the things I appreciate most about the third wave coffee movement (other than the vastly superior coffee and the seemingly endless variety of taste profiles) is that unlike first wave and even second waves, the roasters and sellers take care to understand the growing and harvesting conditions, including land use and farming practices, and labor and trade practices. There is an equation between good production practices and good quality. Sure it costs more, but those of us who have “bettered ourselves”, or whatever bootstrap sh*t you so called Christians preach, can afford it. And I prefer to spend my dollars on sustainable agriculture and fair trade. And if enough of us “better” people spend our very high salaries thoughtfully, we can create increased demand for carefully-sourced products. See, it’s called capitalism. I love it. You should try it some time.
Just remember, there is no coffee in hell
Well, since we are living in it I would have to disagree.
Earth 4.5 billion years to modern humans inhibiting earth’s living system 200k years, I wonder who’s the boss here and I wonder which species are at conflict with the natural laws of sustainability? The biggest fallacy of the modern human is that we are the boss and have always been here since the beginning. Evolution is on its course, species take note, earth will be fine.
Terry, could you live on $500 a year? No-one thinks or argues that we should be giving money to farmers for free. But what we really must do if we want to have any coffee left is pay them more than we do now. In 1980 the average price paid for coffee was $1.25 per lb at the port. In 2020 it was $1.25 per lb. In those 40 years the US dollar lost 73% of its value. To be worth the same amount as in 1980 we should have been paying $4.62 per lb in 2020. That’s what we need to be doing, just to maintain the 1980 standard of living of coffee farmers.