WHETHER AS A MORNING DRINK an after-dinner wind down, coffee is an important part of life for millions of people around the world. For some, there is a ritual around it – the smell, the warmth, the slight buzz. For others it is a necessary part of each day, the thing that helps them get through the chaos of everyday life. Whatever the reasons, coffee has become one of the most ubiquitous drinks, other than water, in the world.

Like water, coffee plants are dealing with the realities of climate change, and coffee drinkers may already be experiencing the consequences. Coffee varieties (of which there are many) are adapted to very specific climatic conditions, and a shift of even half a degree in temperature, or a few inches of annual precipitation, can make a large difference.

As the climate slowly but surely changes, coffee growers are dealing with a multitude of issues that have contributed to crop declines. For example, warming has led to the expansion of the coffee bearer borer’s habitat, and this small beetle can destroy entire crops. The beetle was initially found only in central Africa, but it has since spread to almost every coffee growing region in the world. Higher temperatures seem to be more supportive of the pest, as the female lays more eggs and drills deeper into the coffee fruit, thus causing more destruction.

Caribbean coffee yields are vulnerable. Jamaica and Haiti, like the rest of world, are facing an upward battle against climate change. Literally. Coffee rust, or roya, is a fungal disease that has infected coffee plants throughout Central America and the Caribbean since 2012.The International Coffee Organization estimated that there were losses of up to $250 million due to roya in 2014 alone.

Coffee growers have also seen a shift in roya outbreaks, which some scientists have linked to climate change. And while roya used to be confined to altitudes below 800 meters, it is now being seen in locations as high as 1,200 meters. As pests and disease invade previously-thriving coffee growing regions, farmers are forced to either move to higher elevations, or deal with damaged crops.

The impact: The decrease in coffee production has already led to the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars, and thousands of jobs. Almost 2 million people in Central American and the Caribbean depend upon coffee for their livelihoods. Seasonal workers, also, are suffering from fewer jobs, as there are less crops to pick and process.

Luckily, farmers are also adapting. In Colombia, farmers have planted roya-resistant trees. The country’s farmer-funded National Coffee Research Centre has developed 30 to 40 varieties of the tree. It remains to be seen if people’s taste buds will be accepting of these new varieties, but they offer some hope.

Additionally, shade can help protect against roya, as can natural soil inputs like coffee husks, waste cardboard, and coffee mill effluent. The Finca Medina farm in Guatemala, for instance, is achieving some success with their natural ways of protecting against roya.

As new innovations and technologies are developed to deal with the ravages of climate change, we can hope that coffee growers in the Caribbean and around the world are able to adapt to changing situations.

Image credit: Graham Alton

Coffee growers face uphill battle against climate change

Alison Singer

Alison Singer has been writing about environmental issues for years, and has a particular interest in climate change. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she works for the US Government and writes for a variety of organizations.

PUBLISHED — October 31, 2014

Category: Sustainability

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