Coalition maps the future of coffee in an uncharted climate

coffee farmer, Colombia

A coffee farmer picks fresh coffee cherrries in Colombia’s coffee producing zone, which is suffering the effects of climate change. (© Niel Palmer, CIAT)

Editor’s note: September 29 marks National Coffee Day in the U.S. Throughout the month of September, Human Nature is publishing a special series of reports on the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, a coalition working to make coffee the world’s first sustainable agricultural product. This post is the first in the series.

By 2050, the world’s area suitable for coffee production is projected to be cut in half.

It’s a statistic you’ve likely heard before, and one the coffee sector struggles with because of its devastating effects on not only the quality and quantity of coffee available to us, but the lives of the farmers who grow it.

Arabica coffee is extraordinarily vulnerable to climate change. As temperatures rise and rainfall becomes more erratic, coffee farmers will adopt new practices, move their farms to new areas or switch to other crops. This move is predicted to cause a decline in the quality of coffee. It also could increase deforestation as coffee moves up into higher altitudes – which are often home to the last remaining intact tropical forests. We’re already seeing some of these effects in places like Indonesia. Shifts in land suitable for growing, combined with pest infestation, are driving coffee farmers to convert their coffee lands to citrus farms to generate more income.

With consumers drinking more than 2.25 billion cups of coffee per dayand overall demand expected to rise 50 percent to 150 percent by 2050 – we know it’s time to stop talking about the issue and start taking action.

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But where do you begin? What specific coffee-producing regions of the world are most likely to feel the burn of a changing climate? And where are forests most at risk?

In order to treat the symptoms of climate change, we’ll need to answer those questions. As we head into the most critical years for coffee farms, we must monitor coffee production practices, use science to understand the risks and opportunities farmers face as they adapt, and map out exactly how climate change is affecting certain areas. 

Members of the Sustainable Coffee Challenge have come together to take action on this issue. In an effort to better map and monitor coffee and forests, academic institutions, organizations and nonprofits from across the sector are working to identify specific geographies where climate change is causing a shift in coffee production.

A recent study by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) found that coffee grown at lower altitudes already requires adaptation today, and in the long term, will likely have to shift to alternative production systems. Farms at higher altitudes have more time, but they, too, eventually must adapt to a new climate reality.

“The risk here is that coffee farmers bite the hand that feeds them,” said Christian Bunn, a postdoctoral fellow at CIAT. “As coffee at lower altitudes is abandoned, there will be pressure to expand production above the current zone.” Not only would this result in additional greenhouse gas emissions, Bunn says, but coffee expanding production could threaten the ecosystems that provide coffee with the soils, pollination and water they need.

“Therefore, we need to efficiently steer the change process to protect regions with deforestation risk and support coffee expansion at already degraded locations,” he said.

coffee monitoring visit

A recent monitoring visit of the Starbucks “One Tree for Every Bag” program in the Huehuetenango region of Guatemala included visits to the nurseries to witness the seedling distribution process and to understand the tracking of plants leaving nurseries. (© Jason Outeanreath)

Meanwhile, organizations such as The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) are providing retail tools for measuring supplier performance on the most important issues like deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, TSC is developing innovations like their Commodity Mapping Project, which includes a tool to help suppliers in the industry get a better grasp on coffee supply chains, the role of coffee in deforestation, and where we should focus our conservation efforts.

“Many companies are still seeking to understand where their coffee supply originates and what risks their supply may be exposed to,” said Christy Melhart Slay, director of research at TSC. “The Commodity Mapping tool uses procurement data to predict where coffee sourcing locations are and analyze what risks occur in those areas. This information helps a company to initiate conversations with suppliers and partner NGOs to plan for future coffee supply and minimize the impacts of climate change and future deforestation.”

Climate is already altering agriculture across the world. It’s time to start making a change.

Bambi Semroc is the senior strategic advisor in Conservation International’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business.

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