Climate change may halve the world’s regions suitable for growing coffee, report shows

Farmer collecting coffee in a small town of Nicaragua, near the border with Honduras. (Credit: AP)

Climate change is expected to drastically reduce the area of land suitable for coffee production around the world, affecting more than 120 million of the world’s poorest people who rely on the coffee industry for their livelihoods.

The new report by the The Climate Institute of Sydney, which was commissioned by Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand, stated that its goal was to better understand the effects of climate on global supply.

Though it doesn’t provide new data, the report does draw from the most important regional and global research to illustrate the troubling future for the coffee industry.

“Without strong action to reduce emissions, climate change is projected to cut the global area suitable for coffee production by as much as 50 percent by 2050,” Climate Institute researchers wrote in the report. “By 2080, wild coffee, an important genetic resource for farmers, could become extinct.”

On a regional level, according to the report, the impact of climate change on the world’s coffee growers would vary over the next few decades. In Tanzania, where 2.4 million people’s livelihoods rely on coffee, there has been a 50 percent decline in production since the 1960s due to steadily rising temperatures. And by 2060, the country’s coffee yields are projected to reach “critically low levels.”

John Connor, CEO of the Climate Institute, told ABC News Radio’s Sandy Aloisi that climate change is already affecting the coffee industry in more ways than just rising temperatures.

“It’s not just the heat, which is a big factor which is driving some of the regions where coffee is produced uphill,” Connor said. “We’re also seeing extra diseases increasing and being able to go up into those areas.”

In Central America, for example, extreme temperatures and unusual high-altitude rains have caused a surge of pests and disease through coffee farms. In 2012, coffee leaf rust affected half of the coffee across the Central American region, leading to an 85 percent product loss for some Guatemalan farmers.

Over the course of that year and into 2013, the damage in Central America amounted to about $500 million and put 350,000 people out of work.

In recent years, Starbucks, Lavazza and other coffee industry giants have also warned that climate change is posing a risk to the industry. In 2011, Starbuck’s director of environmental affairs, Jim Hanna, told the Guardian that climate change is a “potentially significant risk to our supply chain.”

“If we sit by and wait until the impacts of climate change are so severe that [it]is impacting our supply chain then that puts us at a greater risk,” he said.

The Climate Institute’s report offers several ways to make coffee – and the people who rely on its production for their livelihoods – more resilient. Coffee farmers could move away from the equator and farther up mountains, for example, to adapt to rising temperatures.

The downside of relocating is that coffee production would probably come into conflict with other land uses, including forests. The report also warns that since coffee plants take several years to become productive, relocation would be difficult if not impossible without assistance.

Other strategies involve developing more resilient production systems and diversifying crops – which also require support – but ultimately, the study predicts that climate change could push many producers out of coffee altogether.

Although it seems the world’s changing climate will inevitably hurt the industry, some of the world’s top coffee producers are already taking action: several big coffee companies set up the “initiative for coffee and climate” in 2010, in an effort to help farmers respond to climate change.

Not surprisingly, an important component of wide-scale change will also be on an individual buyer level. Coffee consumers around the world can do their part by only buying brands that “provide a fair return to farmers and their communities,” John Connor told the Guardian, “while helping to build their capacity to adapt to climate change.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com