For Latin American coffee growers, climate change is now

EL DOVIO, Colombia – Alonso Carmona is running out of mountain. His coffee trees cover the highest reaches of his steeply sloping farm – but warming weather, bad prices and crop disease threaten to put that part of his farm out of business for good.

While other farmers across Latin America, which produces about half of the world’s coffee, can move to higher ground to produce arabica coffee – the species preferred by connoisseurs around the world – increased heat, the threat of diseases such as coffee leaf rust, and unpredictable rainfall drove Carmona to switch to a hardier, disease-resistant coffee variety, which originates from a cross with a robusta-arabica hybrid. While this coffee variety is arguably better suited to climate change and disease —thanks to traits it inherits from robusta—its cup quality is likely inferior to arabica and may command a lower price.

Carmona told a group of scientists and coffee experts who visited his farm recently that he hopes to experiment with these types of disease-resistant varieties that grow well alongside banana trees, which he mixes in among his coffee plants on his highly diversified farm. “You need to have something to throw in the pot as well,” he said.

From Mexico to Peru, the coffee industry is going through unprecedented and poorly understood changes that threaten to upend production of the second-most consumed drink in the world. These fast-moving disruptions threaten tropical biodiversity, livelihoods and the cherished specialty brews enjoyed in coffee’s biggest markets.

“I am very worried about what is happening in Latin American coffee-growing landscapes,” said Vivian Valencia, a researcher at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands who visited Carmona’s farm. “The issue is that unless we start understanding how these coffee growing landscapes are changing, and what these changes mean for forests and biodiversity conservation and farmers’ livelihoods, then we cannot prepare.”

Long considered an environmentally friendly activity, shade-grown arabica coffee farming overlaps with biodiversity hotspots across Latin America. If farmers are switching to arabica varieties with robusta traits, which produce higher yields in full sunlight, or are pushing higher into the mountains with new arabica plantations, biodiversity is at risk.

Arabica coffee varieties with robusta traits, in addition to preferring a clear view of the sky, often require greater amounts of fertilizer, which cuts into farmer profits. Robusta’s hardiness may also be considerably overrated, according to new research by the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, which shows robusta productivity falls as the temperature rises.

“A lot of the changes that were projected just a few years ago are already happening,” said Christian Bunn, an author of a groundbreaking 2014 study that predicted climate change will reduce global area suitable for coffee by about 50 percent by 2050, with unknown consequences for some 100 million producers. “We need to make our research priorities on the immediate present.”

Valencia and Bunn are part of a group of 20 experts on Latin American coffee production who are plotting a path forward for coffee research to support adaptation in the region. In addition to building a better understanding of how to address the climate, disease and landscape changes already noted above, the team is prioritizing the following issues and questions:

  • Big coffee companies often dictate prices and coffee types for producers. In parts of Mexico, for example, this is giving farmers a guaranteed buyer – but for robusta beans.
  • Specialty coffee companies are increasing direct commercial relationships with smallholder arabica producers, which can incentivize forest conservation and organic growing practices. However, certification for beans can be cost-prohibitive for some farmers, and the use of agrochemicals to fight coffee leaf rust is resulting in many organic coffee farmers losing their certification credentials.
  • Women are increasingly key to coffee production as men leave farmland in search of jobs in cities or abroad. The impacts on coffee production and smallholder livelihoods of this increased role of women are poorly understood.
  • The extent to which arabica-robusta varieties are replacing arabica trees is not known. Some countries have lifted bans on robusta while others, like Colombia, discourage its production as some fear increased robusta production could taint the country’s reputation for high-quality beans.
  • Some farmers are abandoning coffee production altogether, but the trend has not been measured. Other farmers are replacing coffee with cacao, a profitable cash crop, or other commodity crops. In some cases, illicit crops replace coffee.
  • Despite improvements, the gap between coffee farmers’ needs and expertise needs to be narrowed. The research agenda moving forward will increasingly focus on feasible actions that will lead to outcomes desired by farmers.

These issues, among others, were addressed at a recent workshop funded by the Interdisciplinary Research and Education Fund (INREF) of Wageningen University & Research and hosted at the Alliance’s Americas Hub in Colombia. Experts of distinct backgrounds from nine Latin American countries participated.

The objective was to bring together a consortium of professionals who are working on coffee from different perspectives, disciplines and geographies, said Mirjam Pulleman, an Alliance researcher also affiliated with Wageningen University.

“These challenges have many different dimensions and therefore this interdisciplinary approach is very important. But what is also important is participatory approaches,” said Pulleman. “So, we invited people who work in the coffee sector, not only researchers but also people that work on the practical implementation of improvements for more sustainable coffee systems directly with farmers.”

The coffee farmers in El Dovio are ready to lend their expertise. Through many years of smart land management, the community has become a living laboratory for understanding how diversified systems can put food on the table and money in the bank. El Dovio’s agriculturalists have conserved and restored forests, improving water availability. They use crop combinations to help conserve and improve soil health, which also reduces negative environmental impacts. The community’s schoolchildren learn about conservation and farming both in an outside the classroom.

“Maintaining diversified systems in polyculture helps maintain and increase production,” said Victoria Giraldo, a community member, who as a child helped reforest an area that now has a stream running through it. “This allows for greater resilience in the face of all the climate problems that we are facing right now.”

Group of researchers from the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT and Wageningen University and Research and farmers in a coffee field on their visit to El Dovio, Colombia.

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