September 28, 2021

How does El Niño affect coffee production?


We know that coffee is predominantly grown in the Bean Belt: a horizontal strip running around the planet between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. This equatorial region provides optimal conditions for coffee production.

However, the tropics are also characterised by an increased frequency of unusual weather patterns. These do include cyclones and hurricanes, but one of the more prominent phenomena is known as El Niño.

El Niño is a complex phenomenon caused by variations in ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific. Its effects are most strongly felt in Latin America, where it affects air temperatures and rainfall patterns – and therefore coffee production.

To learn more about El Niño, I spoke to a few regional industry experts. They told me more about what it is and how it can affect coffee production across Latin America. Read on to learn more.

You may also like our article on how coffee producers can prepare for unexpected weather.

A woman inspects coffee cherries on a coffee tree.

What is El Niño?

El Niño (The Boy) occurs every two to seven years, lasting anywhere from two months to two years within that window. 

At its simplest, it can be described as the increase in temperature of a strip of ocean water in the central and eastern Pacific – including the Pacific coast of South America.

It’s one phase of a wider climate phenomenon known as the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO). ENSO is essentially a period of varied wind patterns and irregular sea surface temperatures across the Pacific Ocean. El Niño was last observed between 2018 and 2019.

El Niño causes an area of warm surface water to develop in the central and eastern areas of the ocean, creating a “strip” along the coast of Central and South America. In this part of the world, the higher surface water temperature causes higher air temperatures and stormy weather.

Interestingly enough, El Niño actually has a different effect in Southeast Asia, Oceania, and southern China. While these regions may also experience an increase in temperatures, this is also accompanied by long periods of drought. 

However, it’s important to note that the phenomenon is complex, and isn’t uniform even across Latin America – it causes different weather patterns in different regions.

El Niño typically creates dry and hot conditions in Central America, northern Brazil, and Colombia. However, during spring and summer it causes southern Brazil, northern Argentina, and Chile to receive more rainfall than usual.

The cool phase of the ENSO, when water surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific are cooler than usual, is known as La Niña (The Girl). Both El Niño and La Niña directly or indirectly influence weather patterns across the globe.

A young man carries a sack of coffee on a coffee farm.

How does El Niño affect coffee production?

Weather plays a vital role in all aspects of coffee production. Both temperature and rainfall play an integral part in influencing the yield and quality of coffee plants.

With El Niño, just how significant the impact is depends on the intensity of the conditions it causes. However, while meteorologists are able to predict El Niño with some degree of accuracy, its effects are often only felt once the coffee has been harvested and processed.

In cases where El Niño causes higher temperatures and reduced rainfall, farms that usually experience low sunshine and high rainfall typically see an increase in production. However, farms at lower altitudes with low-moisture retention soils can experience stunted tree development, and lower yields as a result.

Ana Lucrecia Glaesel Coloma is the Marketing and Communications Coordinator at Anacafe. She tells me that El Niño can actually be surprisingly beneficial for certain regions. 

“In many coffee growing areas in Guatemala, in a normal year, there are rains between 3,000 and 5,000mm per year (such as San Marcos and Las Verapaces in Guatemala),” she says. “This means the effect of the El Niño phenomenon can be convenient.

“Since the rains can decrease to about 2,000mm a year, this results in better yields and intensity of flavours.”

Maria Alejandra Olana works in Specialty Coffee Sales at the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC). She says that while El Niño can be beneficial for coffee production, it can also have devastating negative effects in some areas.

“When El Niño causes conditions that are too dry, it negatively affects growth,” Maria tells me. “It can cause an incorrect development of the entire coffee tree, which inevitably leads to a smaller yield of coffee cherries.” Dry weather can also mean more insects, exposing crops to pests like the coffee borer beetle (la broca). 

Dryness is less of an issue in regions which have soil with good water retention, such as in certain parts of Colombia. However, in regions which classically have “dryer” soil (such as Mexico and the northern parts of Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru), long periods without rain can result in reduced yields.

And just as not enough rainfall is an issue, too much can also be problematic. In Brazil, for example, El Niño can cause excessive rainfall. This can overwhelm the soil’s capacity for water retention, flooding coffee plantations and potentially causing uneven flowering. 

This in turn means that coffee cherries will not mature uniformly – which is generally associated with lower quality lots.

Coffee cherries on a coffee tree on a farm that was affected by El Niño.

Climate change and El Niño

Climate change has further complicated ENSO – an already irregular weather pattern. This can cause difficulties for producers looking to plan and project production levels during El Niño events. 

Recent El Niño phases have been irregular, but there is no consensus on whether or not climate change is better or worse for ENSO cycles. However, in some regions, El Niño can actually worsen the existing effects of climate change.

Marianella Baez Jost is the co-founder of Farmers Project and the owner of Finca Cafe Con Amor in Costa Rica. She tells me that climate change in general means coffee farmers have to harvest prematurely, which leads to subsequent disruptions in planting, pruning, and picking. 

She adds: “With climate change already causing an increase in temperature, El Niño’s additional temperature increases have led to coffee rust finding ways to climb up to higher altitudes where, typically, rust has never been an issue.”

Conversely, an increase in temperatures may also enable farmers to move into areas that were previously unsuitable for coffee production.

Coffee seedlings lined up on the ground.

How does El Niño affect the C price?

Around the world, coffee farmers’ income is tied to the C price, which can be volatile depending on certain conditions. El Niño and the unpredictable weather patterns it causes are certainly an example.

By indirectly affecting harvest yields, El Niño doesn’t just affect the availability of coffee, it also influences demand and market confidence. According to Maria, this in turn directly affects producers.

“During a strong and harsh El Niño, the coffees that become available are in short supply and can be of lower quality,” she says. “This affects the price paid to producers.” 

Ultimately, when El Niño affects one of the largest coffee producing countries in the world (such as Brazil), it can have have repercussions on the global price.

A woman holds a branch full of coffee cherries.

How to plan for El Niño

Reducing the impact of complex weather patterns such as El Niño can be crucial for producers in affected areas. However, through careful farm and plant management, the weather pattern can be effectively managed. 

Mitigation techniques can vary from region to region, but Ana breaks them down.

She says: “The main recommendations are the use of shade grown coffee, soil analysis, application of balanced fertilisers, incorporating organic matter into the soil, soil conservation (contour lines and terraces), avoiding chemical control of weeds, allowing the presence of ground cover, and rainwater harvesting. 

“When it comes to washed coffee at wet mills, quality assurance records, quality monitoring, the dynamics of sun-drying, and the relative humidity and temperature of the warehouse are all important factors to consider during El Niño.”

Marianella also emphasises the importance of annual soil tests. She says these allow producers to tailor nutrient management and target deficiencies that could become more prominent during irregular weather patterns. She also agrees that shade is vital.

“When we expect drought and less rainfall, particularly during El Niño, we want the shade trees to continue to grow and help us maintain the humidity,” she says. “This means that coffee plants can stay fresh and not get burnt by the sun.”

Researching and implementing irrigation systems can ensure your coffee plants obtain the necessary amounts of water during projected droughts. In certain affected areas, it may also be worth looking into pest management solutions, as well as avoiding planting any varieties that are more susceptible to disease.

Green coffee dries under a shade cloth.

The effects of El Niño are complex; it’s broadly difficult to label them as negative or positive, the exact impact ranges wildly from region to region. In some areas, coffee production benefits from the increased rainfall, while in others, the drought it causes may ruin coffee quality and yields.

With the right planning and agricultural practices, the effects of El Niño can be accounted for. This can allow producers to exploit the beneficial effects of the phenomenon or ensure that any negative impact is mitigated.

Enjoyed this? Then read our guide to coffee drying.

Photo credits: Finca Cafe Con Amor, Farmers Project

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