Coffee: a canary in the coal mine for climate change

Coffee Leaf Rust

This morning I was interviewed for a cable network television show about climate change and more specifically about its connection to coffee leaf rust. It was a short piece and it’s hard to say how much of what we discussed will be aired but I found the reporter’s questions perfectly on-target for consumers to understand the dynamics of what’s happening in Central America’s coffee sector right now.

Working in our small niche, we’re all very close to the coffee leaf rust outbreak so it’s easy to lose perspective. The bigger and much more frightening picture of leaf rust is that the whole of coffee agriculture is just one tiny part of a larger ecosystem that is being impacted by global climate change.

We are a canary in the coal mine for changing weather — and we’re starting to show signs of trouble.

The UN Climate Change Summit is getting some attention this week but still more will be needed before reaching critical mass for the majority of consumers to take action and curb wasteful and environmentally harmful practices. In a study released in 2013, the Pew Research Center found that although the majority of Americans now believe that climate change is real (an improvement), only 40% see it as a major threat. This compares to a median of 54% for the world population. Global superpower China shares the same ambivalence of the USA at only 39%.

If you work in coffee, have traveled the world and encountered the impact of rising temperatures and changing weather pattens, I urge you to tell your customers and the media what you see. We have a responsibility to communicate our experiences and help consumers to understand that the data from scientific studies is real, not influenced by political agenda and has real impact on all our lives.

My transcript is below and I’ll post video from the interview if and when it becomes available online.

UPDATE April 10, 2014: Here’s the resulting 1 minute video.

Reporter: How is climate change affecting coffee?

AH: Climate change is affecting coffee by disrupting the delicate balance of micro-climates where coffee is grown, leading to lower production, lower quality, more pests and disease.

On a global scale, as temperatures rise by just a few degrees, coffee farming may not be possible on the land where it is grown today, which could lead to widespread humanitarian crises among those millions of families who rely on coffee as a primary source of income.

Reporter: When did we start noticing these signs?

AH: Researchers, environmentalists and humanitarian organizations have all been studying the changes for years. Reports that I’ve seen are beginning to show a migration of coffee farming to higher elevation (lower temperature) lands. In recent years, rainfall patterns have been shifting in coffee producing areas of the world (between the equatorial Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn) and wreaking havoc with floods and droughts — much like we’ve seen across much of the world in the past year.

Reporter: Explain coffee rust.

AH: Coffee leaf rust (commonly referred to by its name in Spanish, “la roya”) is caused by the fungus Hemileia vastatrix. The fungus spreads by airborne spores that attack coffee plant leaves, making them unable to process food by converting sunlight into chemical energy. Without food, the plant is weakened and unable to produce its fruit — the seeds that we refer to as coffee beans. The smaller amount of fruit that is produced by infected plants tends to be lower in sugars than from a healthy plant, meaning that taste suffers.

La roya is something that we’ve known about for over a hundred years and was previously responsible for the destruction of commercial coffee farming operations in Sri Lanka and the Philippines and forever altering the production of Indonesia. The fungus is also common in Central America but generally only at lower elevation, where specialty Arabica coffee is less likely to be grown.

In 2012, there were heavy rains in Central American countries, causing landslides and widespread damage, followed by periods of drought and high winds. The fungus flourished in this combination of weather events, first growing and blooming in the rainfall, then releasing spores in the dry months that were lifted far and wide by heavy winds.

Damage from la roya is already estimated at US$500,000,000 this year across some of the world’s poorest countries, with conservatively 20% of Central America’s crops being lost. Some countries are reporting losses over 70% or more — countries that rely heavily on coffee as a substantial portion of their GDP.

Coffee farming is a challenging business and only marginally profitable under the best of conditions. When 20% of a farmer’s crop is lost, so is his or her entire profit for the season. The real damage of rust is that it makes farming not economically feasible, so farmers choose other crops or leave farming lands altogether to pursue gainful employment. As a result, entire origins of coffee may be lost and never return.

That’s before we consider the effect of economics and food security on political instability. Without income, people starve. It doesn’t take a climatic researcher to know that hungry people are desperate — leading to regional conflicts, government upheaval, sometimes terrorism and all out war.

Reporter: What can we do to stop the rust?

AH: There is no simple answer and much more research is needed. The painstaking destruction of infected plants helps but it’s difficult to effectively quarantine a field, particularly as spores take flight or adhere to workers’ clothing and tools. There is an effective chemical spray that can be used but unfortunately it’s expensive and a prophylactic measure and does not work once coffee plants are infected. Farmers must choose at the beginning of a season whether or not to spray, a decision that will cost them the entire year’s work or more and any chance of organic certification. Facing the certainty of financial loss from treatment, many decide to gamble with the risk of infection.

Reporter: When will Canadians/ Americans feel the effects of the rust? Price wise? Quantity wise?

AH: Impact on the consumer will lag 6 months or more behind what’s happening on the ground. We are already seeing some changes but it will become more apparent at the consumer level in 2015. First, with less availability of organic certified coffee (those coffees that were treated and saved). That will be followed by lower quality (less sweet, more bitter) commercial “grocery store” coffees for the same price or slightly higher. Eventually, it will lead less availability of coffee from specific origins or regions, like Nicaragua or potentially all of Central America.

Reporter: Is there a chance coffee will go completely extinct ? when?

AH: Theoretically possible? Yes. Likely? No. I do, however, suspect that we will lose some origins along the way due to climate change that makes coffee farming economically unfeasible or simply not possible.

Each origin, each micro-climate and estate has its own special flavor combinations, sensory characteristics and history — a real connection to the land, its culture and history. Once gone, we lose that experience forever.

Reporter: Is climate change affecting other foods/crops?

AH: World food production is a much bigger issue: plant / animal extinction, water and food shortages. Continuing from your prior question: if coffee does go extinct, it will be for the same reason that we all do.

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Coffee: a canary in the coal mine for climate change

One Response

  1. Wow, Andrew. $500,000,000 loss in GDP to these small producing countries is an enormous impact – and obviously much more so to the individual growers. These numbers are important, as the entire discussion about ‘should we change course to allow for climate change or not?’ seems to be an economic argument (ridiculous, I know, but there we are). When we look at this kind of impact in a relatively marginal niche of food production (compared to wheat, for instance), it starts to add an interesting dynamic to the discussion. Thanks for this.

    Jason Turner March 25, 2014 at 6:50 pm #

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