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55. Climate change and coffee in the news

Reuters recently published an article titled “Central America coffee land to shrink as globe warms” that warns about the likely impacts of climate change on coffee farming here, and explains what our partners at CIAT are trying to do about it.

The article cites CIAT senior research Peter Laderach’s estimate that the amount of land suitable for coffee in Mexico and Central America could decline by up to 30 percent or more by the year 2050.   (Peter’s data for Nicaragua are staggeringly grim — they show that coffee will no longer be suitable by 2050 on up to two-thirds of the land currently devoted to coffee production, including areas that are producing Cup of Excellence-caliber coffees.)  That means a lot less coffee on the market.

The article doesn’t fully explore the implications of this reality, which are very different at the market end of the chain than they are at origin.  For the industry, the big-picture perspective is that sourcing relationships may need to change, which may increase transaction costs, and that competition will be more intense, likely raising the unit price of coffee.  But roasters and importers are not going to get out of the game, they just have to adapt to changes in the rules by which it is played.  At origin, however, the calculation is different.

It is true, as the article mentions, that some farmers could be winners when climate change rearranges the coffee map in Mesoamerica.  In fact, the CRS-supported farmers in the community of San Lucas Tolimán here in Guatemala, who were also mentioned in the article, may be among them.  They happen to live at altitudes ranging from 1600-1800 meters above sea level — the level that CIAT thinks may be the optimal altitude for coffee by 2050.  With some modest adjustments to their farming practices, they could actually see their coffee revenues increase.  But what about the farmers at lower altitudes?  Or whose farm systems don’t as easily accommodate preferred mitigation practices?  They may find themselves out of the game altogether, and on the margins of the industry.

CIAT is also working to help these farmers by understanding what they are growing now besides coffee, and generating predictions of what might happen to those crops by 2050, as well as others that hold promise in the coffeelands.  The “coffee losers” may be big winners in other cash crops or food crops, and this project is trying to help them make the transition from coffee to whatever comes next as smooth as possible.

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