Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Friday, April 15, 2011

A World Without Coffee?

One of our readers recently challenged me regarding human-caused climate change:  If it’s happening, how do you know it’s significant?

Hmm.  How do we measure significance? 

The significance of climate change probably depends on where you stand.  For example, this morning Barbara Elwood suffered one of the effects of climate change.  But you might argue that it wasn’t really all that significant.  When she brewed her beloved morning coffee, she cut the amount by one-quarter.   One quarter less of the precious elixir we all crave.

Have you noticed what’s happening to the price of coffee?  Barbara has.  The price of high-quality Arabica coffee beans from Latin America is up 85% since last June, with no end to increases in sight.  In March, world wholesale coffee prices of all types were up 79% over the prior year.  What’s going on?

Well, worldwide demand for coffee continues to grow at a 2.5% annual pace.  But production has been hit with many difficulties, limiting average annual supply growth to only 1.7% since 2000.  What’s the problem?  The International Coffee Association puts it simply: “Climatic variability is the main factor responsible for changes in coffee yields all over the world.”

I never knew how specialized a plant the Arabica coffee strain is.  It turns out to be a delicate fruit, grown in just-right climate zones. It grows in narrow bands of peak conditions on tropical mountainsides, requiring very specific ranges and timing for everything from temperature to rainfall amounts.  As a result, it’s particularly susceptible to weather shifts, changes and extremes. 

Coffee rust fungus flourishes in newly-warm temperatures
But extremes are exactly what the Arabica regions of Latin America and Africa have been suffering.  Average temperatures in many coffee lands have increased 1 to 2 degrees in the last thirty years.  And while global warming causes droughts in many places, the warmer Pacific Ocean today releases torrential rainstorms on South American coffee highlands.  In the new, warmer and stormier climate, the plants’ buds abort or their fruit ripens too quickly for optimum quality. Heat and flooding also incubate pests like coffee rust, a devastating fungus that could not have survived the previously cool mountain weather.

As a result, coffee production is being driven higher into the mountains.  According to a recent study by CABI – Britain’s science-based development and research agency – the lower altitude limit for coffee growing is rising by roughly 15 feet per year.  15 feet every year!  Our entire farm doesn’t have 15 feet of elevation variability.  And coffee isn’t like dandelions:  the bushes take years of work to become productive.  Even if you owned vast plantations, you can’t just move uphill.

So an arguably insignificant sacrifice for Barbara Elwood has a much darker side for coffee growing families in the world’s tropical zones.  Consider the news from Colombia, Kenya and Uganda:

Colombia:  The world’s No. 2 Arabica exporter has lost 28% of its coffee production in the last 4 years.  With a 2-degree warmer climate, and a 25% increase in mountain rainfall, Colombia’s 91,000 coffee growing families are facing an onslaught of challenges, including reduced coffee quality, squeezing them out of the crucial export market.   The warmer climate is incubating new pests, including coffee rust, which destroys entire fields which were once safely uphill from its range.  And while sales are down, costs are way up, with growers beset by the cost of new fungicides, insecticides and the cost of replacing fields with genetically-modified coffee strains. 
Kenya:  U.S. imports of Kenyan coffee have increased five-fold since 1992.  But since 2000, production is down 15%, and in three of the last four years, it was down by 33-50%.  The land around Mt. Kenya now being used for coffee and tea production is being pushed up the mountain, forcing clear-cutting of upland forests.

Uganda:  This country is dear to our hearts.  We have trekked among Ugandan coffee bushes, and we count as friends families who grow coffee, in addition to cocoa, cassava and plantains. The outlook for Ugandan coffee is alarming.  A report by Oxfam warns:  “If average global temperatures rise by two degrees or more, then most of Uganda is likely to cease to be suitable for coffee.  This may happen in 40 years, or perhaps as little as 30.”  

Uganda's prime coffee lands (brown/tan) are lost with 2 degree rise.
And it’s not just the heat:  the changing climate is bringing erratic rainfall patterns to Uganda, with resulting floods, landslides and soil erosion.  Let’s not imagine that these plagues will hit only the coffee, sparing the vital food crops that virtually all Ugandans rely on for their daily bread.

So, is the impact of climate change significant?  Barbara Elwood thinks so.  Not because she’s drinking less coffee, but because she knows and cares for families who depend on the earth’s stable climate for today’s food.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.



  1. I really miss the scent of coffee blossoms in Bundibugyo . . after the blight, everyone switched to cocoa. CAn you post about what will happen with cocoa farming in the forseeable future of climate change? Because Bundi has put ALL the eggs in this basket, so to speak. Jennifer

  2. DrsMyhre: Thanks for the comment. Can you tell me if the "blight" was coffee rust? There are many others as well, and Bundi may already have passed into "unsuitable." As for cocoa, I'm reading the Oxfam 2009 Uganda report now, and looking for the Ugandan Adaptation Programme report. You'll hear more soon.

  3. Dear Dr. Jennifer Myhre:

    In response to your request, I have done a brief review of the available literature about cocoa, and have some tentative responses to your requests regarding the exposure of cocoa growers in the Bundibugyo District of Uganda. As you note, they have put all their eggs in one basket (i.e. cocoa), and conceivably, climate change could rot those eggs.

    From what I’ve read, this is a possibility, but not a necessary outcome. Coffee is vulnerable to both increasing heat and changing rainfall patterns. Consequently, it is failing wherever climate change is significantly warming temperatures. But cocoa, which is native to the Amazon Basin, thrives in the heat. As such, the warming alone doesn’t seem to hurt it.

    BUT, changes in rainfall present serious problems for cocoa. Take Ghana, for instance. I think they are the world’s leading exporter of cocoa. West Africa accounts for 70% of world production. The Ghanaians are expecting rainfall to decline by 20-40% by 2080, together with a warming climate. William K. Agyeman-Bonsu, Ghana-EPA's focal point on climate change, has been quoted to say: “These conditions will not be suitable for the growing of cocoa anywhere in the country."

    So there you have one leading producer which will be entirely out of the cocoa business in three generations, and probably much sooner. But we don’t know yet whether Bundibugyo will suffer an overall decline in rainfall. Ugandan experts tell of changing rainfall patterns. The long rainy season is becoming less predictable, and prone to drought. The short rainy season (Oct-Dec) is becoming much more violent and intense. The resulting lack of seasonal predictability and soil erosion are bad for Uganda, but I don’t know whether they are fatal for Ugandan cocoa.

    I should also say that there is some hope from genetics. Mars (the M&M people), USDA and IBM recently mapped the cacao tree genome, and published the results. This apparently makes it easier for any lab to develop new drought-resistant strains of cocoa, although I don’t know that this has borne fruit yet. We can hope that researchers will develop strains which lessen the effect of climate change on cocoa growers.

    It happens that this sector is paradigmatic of climatic injustice: Cocoa is grown overwhelmingly by small producers reliant on rainfall, and dependent on small holdings to provide subsistence. We’re talking about millions of poor people. Rich industrialized nations – like our own – refuse to limit their carbon emissions, and then cut their foreign aid budgets to the bone. Meanwhile, the effects of these practices cause suffering in distant lands. And as in prior centuries, the foundation of our economic system (fossil fuels in our day) has resulted in disproportionate suffering among the people of Africa. I wonder what it will take for our people to see this?


    J. Elwood