Tue, Apr 01, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Coffee industry in hot water

Extreme weather and ferocious pests are already having an impact on coffee farms in Central America and Africa — pushing prices up and quality down

By Damian Carrington  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

Rich Western urbanites expecting to dodge the effects of climate change should prepare for a jolt: Global warming is leading to bad, expensive coffee. Almost 2 billion cups of coffee perk up its drinkers every day, but a combination of rising heat, extreme weather and ferocious pests mean the bean is running out of the cool mountainsides on which it flourishes.

“The rise in global temperature is of great concern for us in the coffee industry, because it has already started putting the supply of quality coffee at great risk,” said Tim Schilling, executive director of the World Coffee Research program based at Texas A&M University.

“It is also obvious that increasing temperatures, as well as extreme weather events, have a very negative effect on production. Over the long term, you will definitely see coffee prices going up as a result of climate change,” he said.

Mauricio Galindo, head of operations at the intergovernmental International Coffee Organization, is equally worried.

“Climate change is the biggest threat to the industry. If we don’t prepare ourselves we are heading for a big disaster,” he said.

Coffee drinkers may see the effect in their cups, but the 25 million rural households around the globe whose livelihoods depend on coffee will be hit far harder.

The world’s foremost climate science group, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), included the effect of warming on coffee production as part of a report yesterday on the global impact of climate change.

The report warned that some parts of the world have gone beyond the point of no return.

“Both warm water coral reef and Arctic ecosystems are already experiencing irreversible regime shifts,” it said.

Food production in general is at risk, the report said, with crop yields declining by as much as 2 percent a decade. Fisheries will be affected, with ocean chemistry thrown off balance by climate change.

The IPCC reported that in Brazil, the world’s biggest coffee producer, a temperature rise of 3 oC would slash the area suitable for coffee production by two-thirds in the principal growing states of Minas Gerais and Sao Paulo and eliminate it in others. While growing will become possible in states further south, this will not compensate for losses further north.

An IPCC report on the science of climate change published in September last year projected the world would warm by 2.6oC to 4.8oC by the end of the century without deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

The dangers to coffee stem from its origins in the highlands of east Africa, where the relatively cool and stable climate at altitudes of 1,500m to 2,800m allows the berries to thrive. However, at 23oC and above, the plant’s metabolism starts to race, leading to lower yields and, crucially, a failure to accumulate the right mix of the aromatic volatile compounds that deliver coffee’s distinctive taste.

Pests like the berry borer beetle and leaf rust fungus are flourishing as the world warms. Leaf rust has savaged recent harvests in the coffee heartlands of central America, with yields down 40 percent in the past year over the previous growing and harvesting season.

“The only way you can make sense of it is through climate change,” Galindo said. “The temperature has risen and this fungus can attack with a speed and aggression we have never seen.”

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