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356. Coffee rust: An inconvenient truth

The application of climate science to coffee has generated an inconvenient truth: the map of the coffeelands in Mesoamerica will be redrawn over the next 40 years, and by 2050 the specialty coffee map will likely be much smaller than it is today.  Against the backdrop of the current coffee rust epidemic in Central America, farmers beleaguered by increasing threats to production and persistent market volatility may be asking themselves whether renovating their coffee fields is a good investment.  Especially for farmers at lower elevations, climate science suggests that the right answer may be no.  Farmers who opt out of coffee will need a road map to navigate their transition to new livelihoods strategies, and the kinds of technical support that will keep them from going hungry and degrading Central America’s fragile ecosystems in the process.

CIAT, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, has been at the leading edge of research into the impacts of climate change on coffee in Central America.  Its key findings include:

  • Increasing temperatures will push the optimal elevation for coffee higher, reducing the overall area suitable for production of specialty-grade Arabica coffees.
  • Farmers at the lower bounds of Arabica coffee production today will not likely be viable producers of specialty-grade Arabica for much longer.
  • At a higher band of elevation, farmers may remain viable participants in the specialty coffee trade but will need to adapt their farming systems to mitigate the impacts of higher temperatures and changes in precipitation on coffee production and quality.
  • Coffee will gradually become viable in areas currently too high for its production.
  • In the absence of improved farming practices and better shade management, rising temperatures will speed the maturation of coffee beans at all elevations and negatively impact cup quality.  In regions where Denomination of Origin appellations attest to the distinctiveness and consistence of specific cup profiles, changes in coffee quality could reduce the value of coffee or threaten Denomination of Origin status altogether.
  • In the areas of coffee flux — lower elevations where farmers are leaving coffee and higher elevations coming into production — changes in land-use patterns pose significant risks for Mesoamerican ecosystems, especially if farmers raze low-elevation coffee forest for pasture or cropland or poorly manage the transition from rustic high-elevation conservation forests to coffee production.
  • At lower elevations where coffee may cease to thrive, other tree crops will be suitable for production even as climate change advances, including cacao and fruit trees.
  • The impacts of climate change are highly site-specific; the most effective adaptation plans will be highly localized.

While we were implementing our CAFE Livelihoods project in Mesoamerica, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters funded a collaboration between CIAT and CRS to bring this science to the field.  The CUP project — Coffee Under Pressure: Climate Change Adaptation in Mesoamerica — assessed the vulnerability of smallholder coffee farmers to the expected impacts of climate change and helped them develop community-based strategies for adapting to it.

Banks and governments and industry are working now on plans for massive investment to renovate the coffeelands in Mesoamerica.  If those investments are to generate strong returns, more of this kind of work is needed.




  • Shauna Mohr says:

    Michael, this is helpful. You map out a set of interrelated issues that may benefit from an interconnected response among the various actors. For the renovation strategy, or other investments, to generate a high ROI, there must be connections between the research/science, the dissemination of ag innovations and solutions, the ecological impacts, building capacity in local organizations and institutions, and also liveilhoods and food security work. Not one of those is the answer on its own, but together they begin to make a difference. The Collective Impact model could be a helpful framework for (as you’ve called them) the “architects of the solutions”:
    I agree that further assessments, particularly at the local level are critical.

  • brent says:

    This was the keynote topic at the *2011* SCAA conference, so I’m not sure why folks are acting like this is suddenly new news…

    • Michael Sheridan says:

      Hi, Brent. Thanks for your note.

      I didn’t mean to suggest this is “suddenly new news.” I did mean to suggest is that it was not an explicit part of the official proceedings at the First International Coffee Rust Summit in Guatemala last month even though it was on the minds of many of us who were there. And that if we don’t incorporate this science into the decisions about where to finance coffee renovation and how to help farmers diversify their farms or transition out of coffee altogether, we will not maximize the returns on our collective investments in the Central American coffee sector.


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