Climate change brews up trouble for coffee growers
Governments need to regain control over their agriculture to combat climate change, says commodities specialist Peter Baker.
How will climate change affect coffee production, and what should we do about it? Coffee is the world's most valuable tropical agricultural export — produced by about 20 million smallholder families — so these are important questions.
The weather outlook for coffee growers over the next millennium is poor: it will be hotter everywhere, with prolonged dry spells in many places, interspersed with very heavy rain.
Coffee grows well within a limited climatic range. As temperatures rise, so will coffee — to higher altitudes and latitudes. But space is limited and there will be competition with other crops. Coffee farmers will experience climate change through greater unpredictability, with more droughts and floods — the last thing any farmer wants.
Climate change already seems to be affecting coffee production. It is difficult to attribute direct causality, but the changes we are seeing are entirely consistent with climate modellers' predictions.
Sometimes the effects are slow. For example, 50 years ago, nearly three-quarters of Indian coffee production was the premium bean, arabica; now it is less than half, with robusta coffee (a species that withstands hotter conditions) filling the gap.
And sometimes the effects are abrupt. Mexico is still recovering from Hurricane Stan in 2005: "The land is very tired; it has faced hurricanes, winds, natural deterioration. Everyone here has a smaller harvest, less maintenance and less investment," Ingrid Hoffman, a coffee farmer in Chiapas, told Reuters in 2009. "I think one day we will be able to recover."
Trust the science
This outlook is typical. Local organisations and governments are making brave efforts to recoup losses and return to the way things were, and attribute their problems to acts of God.
But are they right to think like this? Climate models suggest that things will get worse — but few stakeholders, including governments, international organisations, farmers, traders, companies or standards setters seem to be thinking ahead, trusting the science, making strategic plans, zoning the land, adapting or diversifying.
Science should be guiding their decision-making. And the problem is not just with coffee — many countries face a similar crisis in agriculture and land-use resource planning and implementation.
Coffee's recent history reflects that of globalisation: the role of governments has been reduced and institutions downsized in the name of efficiency. The rationale was that efficient market-oriented initiatives would arise to supply any services they needed.
In a way, this has happened: nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) stepped in to assign new production norms enshrined in certifications that you find stamped on coffee packaging in most supermarkets.
This was a positive step that brought important social and environmental issues into the public domain through the Fairtrade Foundation and the Rainforest Alliance, for example. Coffee companies have followed, and substantial amounts of coffee are now certified under some form of sustainable label.
But these schemes focus mostly on farm-level issues without tackling larger scales of space and time. Climate change, however, cannot be adequately addressed at the micro-scale. Farming communities will need watershed-level projects to store water, improve disaster responsiveness and plan for new invasive pests and diseases, for example.
More adaptive, participatory research is needed to find out how best to help farmers, and there should be a greater emphasis on long-term research to develop crop varieties more resistant to climate extremes, pests and diseases. Neither NGOs nor private companies can hope to manage many such activities. And there is an unresolved paradox: sustainability is about imposing order and stability, whereas climate change is about adapting and transforming.
As the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it, globalisation is where everything is connected and nobody is in charge. And that highlights the weakness in the neoliberal agenda — global problems such as climate change cannot be solved by the invisible hand of the market.
Taking back control
So we find, towards the end of the first decade of the new millennium, that support institutions are weak and fragmented. Numerous standards-setters are competing for scarce donor funds and smaller certification fees, with little concerted response from the private sector.
There is no alternative but for governments to regain more influence over the fate of their agriculture. Brazil has shown the way with extensive modelling, leading to zoning schemes where farmers can obtain cheap credit for planting crops recommended by the models. It is now among the top three exporters for ten global commodities, including coffee.
With all our coffee beans in ever fewer baskets, the risk of price instability increases alongside the mounting risk of regional droughts, diseases and floods.
The coffee industry has been a world leader in advancing the cause of sustainability. Now it should take stock, pat itself on the back, and quickly move on to a concerted response to humanity's greatest challenge: tackling climate change.
Peter Baker is a commodities development specialist at CABI, a not-for-profit science-based development organisation.