Climate change threatens largest coffee-producing region in the world, researchers say

Coffee lovers may find it harder to get their favourite caffeine fix in a few years’ time, as global warming could cut coffee growing areas in Latin America by as much as 88 percent by 2050, scientists said on Monday.

Latin America is the world’s largest coffee-producing region. Coffee growing areas in Asia and Africa may be similarly hit, the researchers said in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

They based their predictions on a rise in global temperatures of 2.6 C above pre-industrial levels by 2050.

‘There’s more at stake here than my nice espresso in New York or Paris going to get more expensive. It threatens the primary livelihood of millions of people who are already vulnerable.’
– Taylor RickettsGund Institute for Environment

Nearly 200 countries have pledged to keep temperatures to “well below” 2 C by curbing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, under the 2015 Paris climate deal, but some fear this target will not be met.

Coffee is grown by about 25 million farmers in more than 60 countries, with probably 100 million people involved in its production — most of them are rural and poor, said Taylor Ricketts, co-author of the study and director of the Gund Institute for Environment at the University of Vermont.

“There’s more at stake here than my nice espresso in New York or Paris going to get more expensive. It threatens the primary livelihood of millions of people who are already vulnerable,” Ricketts told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

High quality coffee grows in mountainous areas in the tropics, where it thrives in the cooler air. As the planet heats up, coffee plants will have to be moved higher up mountains — meaning there will be less land available to cultivate them.

“Getting coffee cultivation right is really important to conserving nature and developing rural communities. Aside from being everybody’s favourite morning thing to do, it’s got these big ramifications,” said Ricketts.


A worker shows cocoa beans at the “Jorge Salazar” Cooperative in the town El Tule in Matagalpa, Nicaragua January 8, 2016. Soaring temperatures in Central America due to climate change are forcing farmers to pull up coffee trees and replace them with cocoa, spurring a revival in the cultivation of a crop once so essential to the region’s economy. (Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters)

Coffee-growing areas are particularly rich in plant species, including some unique to those regions. These “biodiversity hotspots” will also be impacted by a warming planet.

The worst affected countries in Latin America will be Nicaragua, Honduras and Venezuela, the scientists said.

On the other hand, slightly more land might become suitable for growing coffee in Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia and Costa Rica, they said.

Heat-tolerant coffee

Coffee farmers can protect their plants from a warming climate by creating shade for them. They also need to protect the forests, hedgerows and other areas that provide pollinating bees with flowers and nesting sites.

“If there are bees in the coffee plots, they are very efficient and very good at pollinating, so productivity increases and also berry weight,” said lead author Pablo Imbach of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

Unlike coffee plants, bees that pollinate the coffee can spread to cooler areas north or south of the tropics, as well as uphill.


A coffee picker carries sacks of coffee cherries at a plantation in Nicaragua. Coffee is grown around the world by more than 25 million people, and climate change is threatening their livelihood. (Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters)

“We can think about…making sure we grow coffee in really smart ways, in ways that are more biodiversity friendly and ways that produce higher quality coffee in sufficient amounts on smaller amounts of land,” said Ricketts.

It may also be possible to develop varieties of coffee that are more heat tolerant. “Whether they’ll taste good to the consumer is up in the air,” he said.

Another option for farmers is to switch crops.

“I think other crops are in less dire straits because they grow in a place where there’s a lot of land to their north and to their south and uphill,” said Ricketts.

“I’d prefer it if the climate weren’t changing so quickly, but there are possibilities of alleviating some of the problems this paper predicts.

“The trick is to see them coming so there’s time to adapt,” Ricketts added.

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