Thursday, November 8, 2012

Climate's going to grind the coffee industry worldwide

The world’s coffee market will be severely and negatively disrupted by climate change in coming years, although the impact on Hawaiian growers might actually be moderated somewhat.

A new study, The Impact of Climate Change on IndigenousArabica Coffee (Coffea arabica): Predicting Future Trends and IdentifyingPriorities, suggests that much of the globe’s coffee-producing terrain may become unsuitable for growing the crop. 

“The evidence from coffee farmers, from numerous coffee growing regions around the world, is that they are already suffering from the influences increased warming,” the report says.

The homeland of coffee is in Africa, and that’s where the study assessed the impacts of climate change, modeling the impact at 2020, 2050 and 2080. It notes that coffee is a crop that does best in a fairly limited geographic range, and can’t take a lot of climate change: 

“Arabica coffee is confirmed as a climate sensitive species, supporting data and inference that existing plantations will be negatively impacted by climate change."

What that means in a time of climate change, is that coffee locked by its roots into a specific piece of land won’t do well as the climate zone around that land moves to another elevation or rainfall regime.

“Based on known occurrences and ecological tolerances of Arabica, bioclimatic unsuitability would place populations in peril, leading to severe stress and a high risk of extinction,” write authors Aaron P. Davis, Susana Baena and Justin Moat of the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, and Tadesse Woldemariam  of the Environment and Coffee Forest Forum in Ethiopia.

This bad news isn’t entirely new. The scientific literature has been sniffing along this path for some time.

A 2006 study in the Brazilian Journal of Plant Physiology study appears to confirm the sensitivity of coffee to climate. Its abstract sets the tone: “Overall, drought and unfavourable temperatures ... are expected to become increasingly important in several coffee growing regions due to the recognized changes in global climate, and also because coffee cultivation has spread towards marginal lands, where water shortage and unfavourable temperatures constitute major constraints to coffee yield.”

Why doesn’t coffee do well in dry conditions? Probably because it evolved in conditions with reliable moisture, the Brazil study says: “The native home of coffee species is characterized by low-water-deficit conditions, which probably allowed evolution without the need to develop extensive mechanisms to cope with drought stress.”

Still another report, this one from 2007, also predicts hard times for coffee. it is entitled, Global Warming—the impact on global coffee

The authors argue that coffee farmers who want to respond to climate change need to start planting at higher elevations, where weather is cooler, and to do it soon.

“Since coffee is a perennial that may be in the ground for 20+ years, decisions on planting or replanting should now take climate change into account,” write authors Peter Baker and Jeremy Haggar.

The Hawai`i Data Book says that in 2010 the state had 8,000 acres in coffee production on 830 farms, with a farm value of $33.4 million.

Near half that acreage is in a single farm on Kaua`i, which mainly grows catuai varieties of arabica coffee. And some of the world’s most prized arabica coffee, generally of the typica variety, is grown on hundreds of small holdings in the Kona area of the Big Island. An arabica variety called mocha or mokka is grown extensively on Maui.

Will Hawaiian coffee respond negatively to climate change? Perhaps, although the moderating temperature impact of the surrounding ocean may help keep the coffee fields from warming too much. On the other hand, predictions of reduced rainfall as the climate warms pose a significant problem for coffee growers.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2012

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