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40. Climate change: Coffee Under Pressure

On Monday, I mentioned an industry-supported climate change initiative in Rwanda involving Thanksgiving Coffee.  Today, I want to share a bit about another industry-supported climate change project called Coffee Under Pressure: Climate Change and Adaptation in Mesoamerica (or CUP for short).  CUP is funded by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and led by CIAT (the International Center for Tropical Agriculture).  We are partnering with CIAT here on the ground in Mexico and Central America to implement CUP and help farmers adapt to the impacts of climate change.  We hope this modest project can show a way forward in the ongoing search for cost-effective, scalable ways to bring actionable climate change research to smallholder farmers. 

CUP is helping smallholder farmers — a group that generally does not have ready access to the latest science on climate change — get a better sense of just how vulnerable they and their coffee are to the likely impacts of climate change, and to begin to identify practices that will reduce their vulnerability.

While we all understand the concept of vulnerability generally, in this context we think of a family’s vulnerability as the combination of three factors: exposure, sensitivity and coping capacity.  The very scientific formula might look something like this:

vulnerability = (exposure * sensitivity)/coping capacity

(CIAT has some very talented and qualified people working to actually create a workable equation that will generate a vulnerability coefficient.  This formula is my social-sciences take on the basic concept behind the real science.  If there are any real scientists in the house, please feel free to amplify and/or correct the “climate-change-for-dummies” notation above.)

  • Exposure. This is a measure of the impacts of climate change in a specific geography.  It reflects bioclimatic variables.  Essentially, the degree to which temperature and rainfall and other climatic variables will vary into the future as a result of climate change depends very much on where you live.  We are lucky to work with CIAT’s superstar Peter Laderach on this aspect of the project — Peter has done extensive research on the determinants of coffee quality and the impacts of climate change on coffee productivity and quality.  (The current findings are not encouraging.)  He will be using climate change models under CUP to generate maps of the communities where we are working in our CAFE Livelihoods project that will illustrate the impacts of climate change by 2020 and 2050 on the “suitability” (quantity and quality) of coffee.
  • Sensitivity. This is primarily a measure of the farm system and a farmer’s livelihood strategy — the degree to which current agricultural practices and economic activities put a family at risk of given its level of exposure.  For instance, a total dependence for income on sun-grown coffee would make a family very sensitive, indeed, to any exposure to the adverse impacts of climate change.  The family down the road, however, with rustic shade-grown coffee intercropped with fruit trees on a highly diversified farm that produces a significant percentage of the diverse and nutritious food it eats, would be less sensitive to the same exposure as its neighbor.  CUP is working now to assess the sensitivity of farming systems and identify leading “alternative” crops — basically everything a farmer grows for consumption or the market that is not coffee.  CUP’s maps will also illustrate the expected impacts of climate change on up to 30 alternative crops so that farmers can make informed decisions into the future about what to plant in addition to coffee to reduce the sensitivity of their farm systems and livelihood strategies.
  • Coping capacity. This is the sum total of all the resources that families can effectively bring to bear to reduce their vulnerability to climate change: a large, diverse, well-managed farm (natural capital), rainwater harvesting systems (physical capital), their own smarts (human capital), their families, friends and neighbors (social capital), etc.  CUP will deliver the results of its analyses of exposure and sensitivity to farming communities and help them identify the local assets and adaptation activities that will improve their coping capacity and reduce their vulnerability to climate change.

To date, we have georeferenced the farms of several thousand of the 7,100 farmers participating in CAFE Livelihoods, and continue to capture that data as we move steadily forward.  CIAT, meantime, has conducted field surveys of current farming practices to assess the sensitivity of participating farmers to climate change and advanced in its work to refine the concept of vulnerability.  We plan by mid-2010 to begin meetings with farmers to discuss adaptation strategies.

I will be offering periodic “CUPdates” on the project’s progress in the months ahead.

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