Bad News for Coffee: Climate Change

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The future of sustainable coffee production is uncertain. A changing climate poses a serious challenge, as the crops face new threats from rising temperatures and extreme weather affecting production sites suitable for high-quality coffee production.

In a report released in March 2014, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that “in many cases, the area suitable for production would decrease considerably” by 2050. For the years ahead, this means a reduced supply of high-quality and shade-grown coffee, which may increase prices for consumers, leaving a bad aftertaste in the mouth of those who have come to appreciate the high-quality variety.

An example of what the weather has in store for coffee production occurred in Brazil earlier this year. The 2014 drought will be remembered not only for the resulting large coffee crop losses but also the doubling of prices for the coffee that remained. In this particular case, major retailers mostly decided to absorb the prices themselves rather than passing them on to consumers, but there are no guarantees that this will be adopted as a common practice.

Currently, most of the cost of changing climate is borne by the farmers. In the tropical regions where many coffee producer countries are located, rising temperatures and new weather patterns are resulting in persistent diseases for the coffee plant (such as the “coffee rust” fungus) and new forms of invasive species. Flexibility in choosing the most appropriate farming method to employ in each situation can help farmers when faced with new threats. As Aveen Deep R., an Indian farmer, explains, “The fact that we have been basing decisions on when to use fertilizers and when to go completely organic on an as-needed basis means we are better equipped to face the negative weather patterns or diseases.”

In countries like Nicaragua, crop diversification is another strategy addressing the unfavorable effects of climate change on farmers. While it helps farmers to continue to earn a livable income through other crops, this method does not address the question of securing a supply of high-quality coffee despite climate change challenges.

Premiums that companies such as Nespresso pay the farmers for high quality and for adhering to the company’s sustainability standards partially cover increased production costs. In fact, crop selection criteria remain very strict in the premium coffee market. Nespresso, which produces coffee capsules and coffee machines, estimates that only about 2 percent of the world’s coffee supply meets the company’s standards for its Grand Cru varieties, and it sources only fine beans with a particular taste and aroma.

Maintaining sustainability standards makes good business sense: Companies perceived as environmentally, socially or economically fair benefit from added credibility in the face of increased competition. The latest State of Sustainability Initiatives Review finds that “standard-compliant coffee production grew 26% per annum from 2008 to 2012.” The report sees a long-term potential for sustainability in the coffee sector, stating that “conformity with one standard or another will soon become a requirement for market entry.”

Yet sustainable practices remain concentrated in the more developed Latin American region. Other, more marginalized regions are either not seeing this trend or are experiencing it at much lower rates, as adopting certifications can serve as systemic barriers to these already disadvantaged producers.

Neither the private companies nor the farmers can face these issues alone. Speaking at the 2013 U.N. Climate Change meetings in Warsaw, Dr. Linda Asherson of the International Organisation of Employers noted that there is a “need for a fair and equitable transition for enterprises in light of the employment and social impacts that climate change would bring.” At the same time, other stakeholders, such as governments, are expected and encouraged to fill in the gaps to support businesses in developing skills for innovation and retraining and to develop resilience.

While the good news is that fair trade and sustainable coffee initiatives are increasingly being adopted, the bad news is that climate change and its existing effects cannot be reversed. Addressing the challenges that it brings through a timely, long-term strategy would be beneficial to producers at all levels, as well as consumers and future generations that are dependent on today’s sustainability practices.

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