November 7, 2019

How Coffee Producers Can Adapt to Climate Change


Recent public protests on global warming have focused the world’s attention on its climate crisis. Experts believe that the consequences of climate change are – and will be – dire, if left unchecked.

Coffee production could be hard-hit. This would be a problem, as it’s one of the world’s most traded commodities, with an estimated 125 million people depending on it for their livelihoods. Climate change is set to halve the global area suitable for coffee production. Add to this pest infestations and declining coffee prices, and it’s clear that the welfare and livelihoods of producers are under threat.

As a producer, you might be wondering how to adapt to this challenging reality. Measures exist that can help you navigate it. It will require long-term thinking, entrepreneurship, and a sense of community.

Lee este artículo en español ¿Cómo Pueden Los Caficultores Adaptarse al Cambio Climático?

 A member of the Sidama Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union visits an agroforestry coffee farm in the Sidama region of Ethiopia. Credit: Alliances for Action, International Trade Centre

How Will Climate Change Impact Coffee Producers?

Climate change has unleashed a lethal cocktail of heat waves, droughts, and disease outbreaks on coffee-growing areas. All the while, there’s been rampant deforestation to meet the rising demand for land. As coffee is a delicate crop with highly specific temperature, rainfall pattern, and environmental demands, this is a deadly blow.

80% of coffee is produced by smallholder farmers, and they’re the ones most vulnerable to this crisis. Many are un- or underfinanced, and often rely on just one crop – coffee – for a living. Climate change is only adding additional pressure on their bottom line, with coffee prices presently hitting an all-time low.

Addressing challenges such as ageing coffee trees, pest and disease outbreaks, and rising temperatures requires time and investment; neither of which smallholder farmers have in abundance. It means that farms will need to adapt to increase coffee farmer communities’ resilience.

While this won’t be an easy task, continuing with business as usual will only leave coffee producers with increasingly reduced arable land, decreased production, and loss of livelihoods – a far more daunting prospect.

Recently, the sustainable trade initiative IDH as well as Conservation International, the Specialty Coffee Association, the Global Coffee Platform, and the Initiative for Coffee & Climate released a report on climate adaptation in coffee. They warn that “we must act now to create a resilient and sustainable coffee sector”.

The report identifies five climate risks to watch out for: loss of suitable area for coffee production and shifts to higher altitudes; increased water stress; poor flowering and cherry development; increased outbreaks of pests and diseases, and increased vulnerability of smallholder and women farmers.

For further insight, I asked IDH report contributor Tessa Meulensteen why producers should adapt to climate change. She explained that climate change is a very real threat, and that many coffee farmers are already witnessing its impact first-hand and suffering from it. “You need to adapt to be able to farm in the long run,” she says. “You need to make sure you can maintain an income from that and that you can do it the right way.”

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Coffee cherries on a farm in El Salvador.

What Can Coffee Producers do to Adapt?

Tessa believes that “the way you farm actually impacts the climate. And the other way around: climate impacts the way you farm and what you can do on the farm”.

As well as considering new practices, it’s about shifting the intention behind your existing farming practices and approach.

Here are some steps Tessa – as well as the guide – suggest as ways to adapt your coffee production:

  1. Use good agricultural practices for soil, water, and pest control to maintain productivity despite the loss of suitable environmental conditions. Changing your fertilizer plan, establishing a cover crop, and changing planting dates/distances can all help with adaptation.
  2. Plant shade trees to help regulate the temperature of coffee trees. They help form a microclimate suitable for plants and provide shelter from wind and rain. Planting trees is also an effective mitigation measure that contributes to carbon sequestration.
  3. Take up agroforestry and crop diversification to increase crop resilience and ensure food security and/ or extra income through additional crops. Agroforestry is a natural farming system that includes shade trees and intercropping, and is less water-intensive than monoculture farming.
  4. Introduce new plant varieties: for example, shifting to sturdier and more climate- or pest-resilient varieties. This is a good alternative if you need to move your crops to higher elevations or are prone to pest and disease risks. Bear in mind that switching crops can be costly and take time.
  5. Irrigate to remain productive in times of water stress. This, however, requires high investment, good public infrastructure, and a regulatory environment. It’s also one of the least sustainable options as it contributes to water scarcity.
  6. Weigh the pros and cons of risky initiatives such as shifting coffee to higher altitudes as temperatures rise. This could potentially drive deforestation and spark land use conflicts – two negatives that could outweigh the gain. Relocation is also high-risk and expensive.

Landscape actions that increase the resilience of the coffee farm’s surrounding area, like afforestation or reforestation, for example, are another key adaptation measure to consider that Tessa highlighted. However, this option requires community action, as it’s not only a farm-level decision.

A farmer from Sidama Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union visits a plot where coffee is grown in an agroforestry system, along with shade trees and other crops. Credit: Alliances for Action, International Trade Centre

Increasing Your Economic Resilience

When your crops are at risk, so is your income, livelihood, and quality of life. And just as you need to strengthen and diversify your crops to increase resilience, you also need to increase your product’s market value and diversify your income streams.

I interviewed Hernan Manson, head of the Inclusive AgriBusiness Systems’ Section at the International Trade Centre, who is currently involved in building a network of sustainable and inclusive agricultural value chains called “Alliances for Action”. He tells me that “producing in climate smart ways is extremely important in order to adapt or mitigate the effects. But it is equally important to look at the market.”

So what steps can farmers take to get more economic value out of their coffee crops?

  1. Understand consumer trends and build a relationship with buyers and consumers to improve product value and buyer interest. An informed consumer is more likely to pay more for quality, sustainably produced coffee. In addition, an involved buyer is more likely to commit to a producer and invest in their development.
  2. Increase sustainability in production. This will reduce further climate change impact and improve soil and crop quality. It’s also attractive to specialty coffee consumers who are increasingly looking for sustainability behind the products they buy.
  3. Multiply options to decrease risk and increase income streams. This could mean diversifying crops, products and markets. For example, intercropping for food security and more income streams, or roasting for more profitable domestic or regional markets. Hernan tells me that the cosmetic and pharmaceutical markets are fast-growing segments for coffee, also making this a viable option.
  4. Join forces with other producers. Hernan believes that “individual smallholder farmers that are not organized will struggle. They will not reach far (…) We need to invest more in farmer groups.” Farmer cooperatives, for example, are better positioned to address the business strategy side of things and to gather or attract funds for investing in adaptation measures and quality improvement.

Members of the Sidama, Yirgacheffe and Bench Maji Coffee Farmers Cooperative Unions present their coffees at an international specialty coffee fair in Japan. Credit: Alliances for Action, International Trade Centre

It Takes a Village

I asked Hernan and Tessa for their biggest tip when it comes to addressing the challenge of climate change as a coffee producer. “Build resilience and alliances” was Hernan’s reply. “Find your community” said Tessa. Strikingly similar replies, both from people having worked extensively with coffee producers at all stages of the value chain.

You can implement changes to adapt to climate change and shift to a more sustainable mindset. But collective action, investment, and commitment at farmer, buyer, consumer, policy, donor, and private sector levels are crucial if any effective adaptation is going to happen. “In the end a number of issues, just can’t be solved at your farm level. So finding that community is very important” says Tessa.

Grouping farmers together (for example, in cooperatives, for example) can be an enabler. It could allow farmers to collectively invest in an irrigation system or new plant varieties, to improve quality and market linkages, and to attract investment. Policy changes and making financing available for climate change adaptation in the coffee sector could also help coffee producers become more resilient.

Finally, there’s paying attention to the producer-consumer relationship. Adaptation measures shouldn’t only happen on the supply side. It’s the consumer’s interest for coffee production to thrive. Imagining a world without easy access to coffee, could lead to a demand for quality coffee produced in socially and environmentally sustainable conditions. This, in turn, could hugely impact producers and their choices.

Ripe and unripe cherries on a tree at a farm in Ethiopia. Credit: Meklit Mersha

Climate change isn’t all doom and gloom. The report offers farmers some hope, by saying that “the situation is intensifying, but the obstacles are not yet insurmountable.” Despite this, the warnings are clear: if coffee production doesn’t change, its future is uncertain. Climate change shows no sign of slowing down, so adapting your production and mitigating its impact needs to become a priority.

The key is to recognise climate change as a long-term problem requiring long-term solutions, and to shift to a more sustainable and entrepreneurial mindset. Investing extra time and resources into your farm may seem like taking a step back, but you’ll reap the benefits in the long run and ensure that tomorrow’s farmers can keep production going and their livelihoods secured.

For the best results, share the load. As the African proverb goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

 Enjoyed this? Check out Sustainability in Coffee: What Are The Main Issues?

Feature photo: Credit: Meklit Mersha

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