October 5, 2016

Coffee Farming: Will Shade Trees Reduce The Effects of Climate Change?


How many coffee trees does it take to sustain a one-coffee-a-day habit? Quite a lot.

And the way things are going right now, we’re not going to be able to do that – unless we start adopting climate-smart agriculture.

Lee este artículo en español Cultivo Bajo Sombra: ¿Reduce los Efectos del Cambio Climático?

Red Caturra

Red Caturra still in the parchment. Credit: The 20/20 Project

How Many Trees Does a Coffee Lover Need?

Let’s look at the maths. It’s hard to be exact – after all, the numbers will vary according to brew recipe, varietal, and more – but there are roughly 100 beans in a cup of coffee, around 4,000 beans per tree and, of course, 365 days in a year. This equates to just over nine mature coffee trees for every person that drinks one cup a day.

Don’t forget that coffee trees take three years to produce their first fruit and another two years to mature, so we’ll also need to plan five years in advance. And when the producer stumps, an agricultural practice that improves yield in the long-term,you’ll have to account for a year of no production.

Oh, and you probably want to drink more than one cup of coffee a day, too.

coffee seedlings

These new coffee seedlings won’t be bearing fruit for a while. Credit: The 20/20 Project

Is Coffee Rationing on The Horizon?

The area where coffee can be grown is set to decrease by 50% by 2050 as a direct result of climate change. In other words, 34 years from now, our daily coffee could be down to three and a half cups per week.

Except it will probably be less than that.

Alongside increased temperatures comes a proliferation of pests and diseases, such as the coffee rust fungus that the World Bank state affected up to 25% of production in vast areas of Central America in 2013/14. The fungus, which up until recently died off in cooler temperatures, is now surviving in the warmer environment and causing severe losses.

With the combination of climate change and these associated pests, unless things change, a one-cup-a-day habit could be down to one a week. In our world of instant gratification, can you imagine how that might feel?

SEE ALSO: The Price of Climate Change on Ethiopia: Extinction of Wild Arabica

Red Caturra

Red Caturra waiting to ripen on the tree – but will the yield decrease in future years? Credit: The 20/20 Project

Climate Change Is Worse For Producers

Now imagine a scenario in which, instead of missing out on our daily coffee, we’re losing out on our daily income. According to Fairtrade, an estimated 25 million smallholder coffee farmers produce more than 80% of our coffee. Smaller farms means greater vulnerability.

When coffee productively falls, these farmers often resort to cutting down the tropical rainforests to create new farms – but they can’t do that forever. What’s more, it only makes climate change worse. According to Solidaridad, deforestation for growing coffee releases close to 76 million tons of CO2 every year.

Bindu Tripathi

Bindu Tripathi: it’s people like her who are affected the most by falling coffee yields. Credit: The 20/20 Project

What Is Climate Smart Agriculture?

Climate smart agriculture (CSA) is low-cost strategies designed to help smallholder farmers mitigate the effects of climate change. The aim is to increase productivity and support higher incomes for farmers, while also reducing carbon emissions and equipping those producers with the skills to adapt to major crises – such as climate change and market volatility.

For example, Irish-based The 20/20 Project – of which I’m a part – provides climate smart agricultural training to coffee farmers in Africa and Asia. We show farmers simple and cost-effective strategies to help improve the yield and quality of their coffee. These farmers also learn techniques for mitigating the impact of climate change, for example by planting shade trees. These are planted alongside coffee trees to help maintain a controlled temperature for coffee growth.

coffee tree

Women carry shade trees to the coffee fields in Pokhara, Nepal to be planted. Credit: The 20/20 Project

Does CSA Work?

A 2009 study published in PLOS ONE found that shade trees reduce temperatures around the coffee tree from two to four degrees centigrade. This has numerous benefits, including pest control, soil improvement, and water retention.

Timothy Schilling, CEO of World Coffee Research, believes that by implementing these climate smart strategies, coffee farmers can increase their productivity by 45%. What’s more, fruit shade trees will also provide a source of food and income for the farmer’s family. And they’re typically associated with sweeter, higher-quality coffees.

Pokhara plant coffee seeds

Community members in Pokhara plant coffee seeds to be grown with CSA practices. Credit: The 20/20 Project

From Farm to Café

Although it’s easy to feel far away from the coffee farm when we order our daily coffee, we’re not. This is, after all, the third wave. By asking about the drinks we order and if the farm uses climate smart agriculture, by creating a dialogue about it, we encourage steps towards it.

Our work at The 20/20 Project is funded through partnerships with roasters and cafés in Europe. And it wasn’t difficult to convince them of the need to support climate smart agriculture. As Three Fools Coffee, Cork says, “Climate change will be the biggest challenge facing the coffee sector in the coming years, and implementing climate smart agricultural strategies will be fundamental to overcoming this challenge.”

So let’s create a dialogue about it. And let’s hope that we see more farming communities adopt climate smart agriculture.

Perfect Daily Grind is not affiliated with any of the individuals or bodies mentioned in this article, and cannot directly endorse them.

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