A storm is brewing for coffee fans

Your morning cuppa looks set to become the latest casualty of climate change, writes Oliver Moore

CLIMATE change has already been blamed for making storms and hurricanes like Sandy more severe and for melting arctic ice. But now it may be about to make your morning cup of coffee extinct too.

Coffee is the world’s most popular beverage and the second most traded commodity after oil. Arabica accounts for 70% of all global production; the remaining 30% is the less flavourful rhobusta, used to bulk out and strengthen coffee, especially coffee at the lower end of the price spectrum.

Climate Change models “show a profoundly negative influence on indigenous Arabica”, according to researchers from the UK’s Royal Botanical Gardens, who have published a paper on the topic with the Environment and Coffee Forum of Ethiopia.

The locations where wild (indigenous) Arabica can grow are rapidly reducing. Between 66% and 100% of the suitable areas will have disappeared by 2080, the paper finds.

Arabica is an especially climate sensitive species. The extinction of wild varieties reduces the opportunity for the coffee industry to exploit the far larger storehouse of genetic diversity that exists in wild varieties. There is little genetic diversity in cultivated varieties.

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) predicts that best estimates for average global temperatures, across all scenarios, will be a rise of between 1.8°C to 4°C by the end of the 21st century. Temperatures have already risen by 0.74°C in the last 100 years, and this increase appears to have accelerated since the 1970s.

With temperature increases, Arabica quality decreases due to fruits ripening too early. With more severe temperature rises, the plant becomes even more stressed, “which is manifest as depressed growth and abnormalities, such as the yellowing of leaves and growth of tumours on the stem,” Aaron P Davis and his fellow researchers stated.

Some of the poorest parts of the world depend on coffee exports for vital revenue. Ethiopia is the fifth largest global exporter of Arabica and the main producer of coffee in Africa. Coffee accounts for about 33% of Ethiopia’s total export earnings.

The largest and most diverse populations of indigenous Arabica occur in the highlands of south-western Ethiopia. This population also stretches into South Sudan and Kenya.

In South Sudan, “the modelling predicted that Arabica could be extinct by 2020 due to climate change, and this appears to be realistic given the poor health (lack of seedlings, loss of mature Arabica specimens, low frequency of flowering and fruiting) of the remaining populations observed in 2012,” the researchers said.

Production difficulties may lead to more environmentally destructive production practices, such as attempts to increase irrigation levels. Increased irrigation leads to salinisation, as salts are left behind in the soil. These salts make it difficult for plants to grow, requiring larger amounts of water again to wash out the salts.

Ethiopia and South Sudan already have severe water needs and stresses. With more extreme and climate change implicated weather occurrences, the Ethiopian government is already asking for more humanitarian assistance.

There are some faint signs of hope on the horizon, however. Organic, Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance certification systems have all helped develop more environmentally sound production techniques. Crucially they also growing markets for coffee produced using these more environmentally sound techniques.

Coffee gatherers in the southern highlands of Ethiopia are working with NGOs like the Italian-based Cooperation for Development, to learn how to protect wild coffee plants, fertilise them with organic compost, and process them to retain higher qualities. These innovations make the coffee taste better and help farmers earn more.

Agroforestry initiatives, where forest and crop production are integrated into one ecologically sound farming system, have also begun to emerge across Africa. Shade grown coffee can be a crop in a mixed farming agroforestry initiative.

Beyond Africa, agroforestry is allowing for shade-grown coffee to re-emerge in impoverished parts of El Salvador, for example.

The community of Los Angeles in the San Julian region of El Salvador, now produce high quality shade grown coffee in a region where 2/3rds of the population lives below the poverty line.

Nevertheless, there are massive global challenges because of climate change.

Dr Matthew Jebb of the Botanical Gardens in Dublin points out that globally, “climate envelopes are changing — mostly that implies moving northwards — at the rate of 4km a year.” That’s “36 foot a day”, which he describes as “truly alarming.”

Climate change expert Dr Kieran Hickey of NUI Galway says “biogeneric reserves are important: a lot of medical and key products in general emerge from or are mimicked from the biodiversity reserves of nature. Everything from adhesives to drugs.”

“Entire subspecies are being lost, which could contain a marker for future human needs. This is why seed saving is so important.”

Though it is difficult to measure, experts agree that the rate of biodiversity loss is happening at between 100 and 1,000 times, a faster rate than natural extinctions would allow for.

Concurrently, research published in the journal Science in 2010 estimated that the benefits of maintaining diverse ecosystems are 10 to 100 times the cost of the maintenance work involved.

So will our coffee and, indeed, our species survive?

“We will adapt, we have in the past and we can into the future,” Hickey notes.

“That’s why we are dominant. Whether that’s good or not is another story.”

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