Will climate change deprive us of coffee?

Summary

What if coffee disappeared in a few decades because of global warming? This is what is suggested by the highly dependable Climate Institute in a report commissioned by the international label Fairtrade, published in September 2016. This alarming observation calls on producers and consumers alike to change their habits to save coffee-growing. An example that could be a useful lesson for the future of farming production all over the world.
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Coffee: an endangered species

According to A Brewing Storm, the report published by researcher Corey Watts and his team based at the Climate Institute in Australia, global coffee production will be halved by 2050. And the study says that wild coffee, an important genetic resource for farmers, could be extinct by 2080. The main culprit? Global warming. According to Steven Macatonia, co-founder of Union Hand-Roasted Coffee, the consequences involved – heavy rainfall, sudden and unpredictable temperature changes and the emergence of more resistant weeds – have an impact on the volume and quality of coffee produced on a global scale.

The usefulness of these shock figures, as we learn from the forward-looking magazine Wired, is that they embody the actual consequences of global warming for consumers all over the world.
For coffee-producing countries like Tanzania, Vietnam and Colombia, the economic impact will be huge. The report estimates that over 120 million people in 70 countries depend on coffee-growing for their livelihoods. Most of them are smallholders. So whole families – and in fact, whole economic zones – will gradually find themselves out of work. It is thus urgent to save coffee farming by preventing the impact of global warming.

What practical solutions are there?

There are various ways of protecting farms and saving the economies that depend on coffee. One consists of strengthening strains, or using the most resistant. We know that of the two coffee types, robusta (produced by 30% of farms) is more resistant than its relative, arabica, much appreciated by discerning coffee lovers. In the future, the diversification of strains could thus curb the danger. Another possibility would be to move coffee-growing to regions less affected by rising temperatures: at high altitudes, for example.

But this relocation would mean shifting a whole agricultural and economic activity, and would require considerable investment in technology to change the production system: a process in which farmers would need assistance. The simplest solution for consumers, as the report suggests, is to buy the coffee of fair trade producers, thus guaranteeing support to farmers, the first victims of climate change.

For example, Fairtrade supports smallholders by facilitating their access to the carbon market, and helping them to adapt their growing methods through information sharing and training. We could envisage a similar, broader label applicable to other products based on crops also threatened by global warming. This would encourage consumers to think more responsibly in the long-term, and help to change people’s attitudes for the better.

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