A coffee farm worker in Cauca, southwestern Colombia

Saving coffee

Global warming is threatening coffee production and the economies of small countries that rely on it to make a living. In Colombia, producers and scientists are keeping a close eye on the situation.
September 26, 2017

Hunched over her microscope, Diana Giraldo gives a satisfied grin: the last one seems to be in good shape. The tree embryo under her gaze was born in one of Cenicafé's laboratories, housed in a large modern building tucked away in the jungle of the Planalto nature reserve, high in the village of Chinchiná in the centre of Colombia. At the moment the embryo is nothing more than a tiny growth on the edge of a piece of dead leaf. In 30 years however, this small cluster of cells may be our only hope to continue indulging in... coffee breaks!

At the current rate that the effects of climate change are being felt, the future of coffee is looking as dark as a strong espresso. While global consumption is setting new records, millions of coffee trees are dying on plantations. They are falling victim to droughts or intense rainfalls, and the pests that proliferate under these extreme conditions. In 2016, 151 million 60 kg bags of coffee beans, the standard industry format, were consumed worldwide. However, the coffee fields yielded only 148 million bags that year. More coffee was consumed than produced in 2015 as well. For now, the demand is being met with surpluses from previous years.

According to a compilation of studies published last year by The Climate Institute, an Australian research centre, by 2050 climate change will have decreased the land area where coffee can be grown by half. All of the big coffee sellers, from Tim Hortons to Lavazza to Starbucks, are very concerned by the shortage and they are funding aid programs for coffee producers. The best coffees are also the most threatened: arabica is very sensitive to the slightest variations in temperature, moisture, and sun. Robusta, which is mainly used to make instant coffee, is more resilient. Millions of consumers hooked on 100% arabica lattes or espressos might soon be wincing as they drink their coffee if the quality drops or prices shoot up.

But more is at stake than a little indulgence loved by two out of three Canadians. Coffee is a major source of revenue and jobs for poor countries, and the second‑largest export product after oil, with global sales of 19 billion dollars. It accounts for one third of Ethiopia's exports and two thirds of Burundi's. If suitable planting areas shrink dramatically, 125 million people around the world risk losing their livelihoods.

The majority of coffee producers are poor, poorly supported, and have little education — as a result they are very ill‑prepared to deal with an unstable climate. We often buy our coffee from the big brands, but production lies almost entirely with small producers. Approximately 25 million farmers work a plot of fewer than five hectares in the 70 countries that make up the “bean belt” in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Some are performing well, but the majority are struggling to survive. Not even Brazil is safe from the threats of climate change, despite coffee being grown by huge operations. In 2014, a record drought decimated production there, resulting in a 20% increase in the price of coffee worldwide!

A coffee plantation
 
Photo: Valérie Borde

Colombia, the world's top arabica producer, has already tasted the effects of climate change: in 2011, one third of production was destroyed by coffee leaf rust, a fungus that proliferates in moist conditions and kills coffee trees. But the country has an ace up its sleeve. Since 1938, through the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, producers have continuously funded Cenicafé, the only research centre in the world devoted entirely to coffee. Thanks in part to this centre, Colombian nectar survived the civil war and major natural disasters, such as the 1985 eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in the heart of the largest coffee producing region, which left 25,000 people dead. In the country of Pablo Escobar and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), coffee has always been a strong social stabilizer, with 2.5 million people now relying on it for their livelihood.

“Cenicafé's scientific expertise and the way it is transferred to coffee growers is remarkable. They could help other countries improve how they deal with climate variations,” says Marco Rondon, an Agriculture and Environment specialist at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Ottawa. In his view, other crops could also benefit from the Colombian coffee strategy, which emphasizes science. Last year, IDRC joined with Tim Hortons to fund Cenicafé's research and analyze the resilience of Colombian coffee growers to global warming.

“Throughout history, there has been very little research on coffee, which is not really a food when compared to crops such as corn, wheat, or rice,” explains Álvaro Gaitán, the director of Cenicafé. A specialist in coffee tree physiopathology and a graduate of the prestigious Cornell University in the United States, this Bogotá native leads a team of 200 people, about 30 of whom have doctoral degrees. Every year, Cenicafé receives approximately $7 million from the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia to study every detail of production — from plant genetics to fruit harvesting and processing methods — in collaboration with universities and businesses.

To act as a bridge between researchers and farmers, the Federation also created the Extension Service, a transfer body comprised of 1,000 agronomy technicians, recognizable by their yellow t‑shirts. They travel year‑round to the approximately 566,000 farms in the country to “report the coffee growers' concerns to us, which then guide our research,” explains Gaitán.

Thanks to this well-established organization, Colombia limited the damage caused when coffee leaf rust proliferated in 2011. These orange patches, caused by a microscopic fungus that eats away at the coffee tree's leaves, have long been the worst nightmare of coffee growers around the world. In 1870, an epidemic destroyed Ceylon's coffee production, forcing the island to stop growing the crop. Coffee leaf rust is part of the reason that the British drink so much tea today! With climate change disrupting rainfall, coffee leaf rust is causing more and more damage. In 2012, a catastrophic 70% of coffee trees in Central America and Mexico were affected.

Diana Giraldo is tending the embryos of tomorrow's coffee trees right where her predecessors starting working on the rust in 1967. “A resistant variety was found in 1982, one year before the fungus arrived in Colombia,” explains Gaitán. Today, Cenicafé's seeds are still the only ones in the world that are resistant to the rust.

However, when the fungus struck in 2011, only one quarter of the country's coffee trees had been replaced by the new variety. Coffee is a long-term crop — a new plant takes three to five years to reach its maximum yield, after which it can produce fruit for more than 30 years. “It is easier to change varieties when you’re growing corn!” noted Gaitán.

The epidemic of 2011 served as a lesson, but by then a new enemy was already rearing its head. From a drawer in Cenicafé's entomological collection, which contains 38,000 specimens, Álvaro Gaitán reveals the culprit — a tiny brownish insect that, in recent years, has cost the coffee industry half a billion dollars per year. The coffee berry borer (la broca, in Spanish) exclusively eats the fruit of coffee trees, and its life cycle is shortening as the average temperature increases, causing it to proliferate. The coffee berry borer is being found at higher altitudes everywhere in the world. Since the 1950s, it has moved up 300 m on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. Because of this insect, among others, coffee plantation yields in Tanzania have decreased by half in the last 40 years.

Cenicafé's researchers have sequenced the beetle's genome, but have not yet found a coffee variety that is resistant to it. “The problem is that all varieties of arabica cultivated worldwide come from a small group with low genetic diversity,” explains Álvaro Gaitán. His laboratory houses a true treasure trove: 1,000 wild coffee tree plants harvested in Ethiopia in the 1960s, from which this plant originated. In the arboretum below the laboratory, there are also flowering coffee trees from multiple sub-species grown around the world, which researchers are attempting to cross to obtain more resistant plants without sacrificing flavour.

While waiting to find successors to the Typica, Bourbon, Blue Mountain or SL-28 cultivars, which the best baristas could talk about for hours, scientists are inspecting plantations to find new allies in the fight against pests such as plants, insects, or microscopic fungi. “We want to limit our use of chemical pesticides, which are expensive for farmers and potentially dangerous when used near inhabited areas, and to which pests quickly become resistant,” explains entomologist Carmenza Góngora. The great biodiversity found in Colombia, in this regard one of the richest countries in the world, is the researcher's greatest ally: every year, her team discovers several unknown insect species on and around the plantations.

In the short term, Cenicafé also helps farmers improve the management of their operations based on meteorological conditions. In seven experimental farms spread throughout the country, researchers are analyzing the influence of numerous elements that affect the yield and quality of Colombian coffee: the nature of the soil, the orientation of the plot, shade, plantation density, companion plants, ideal harvesting time and, of course, weather conditions... “Because of our mountains, each farm almost has its own microclimate!” explains Álvaro Gaitán.

Each month, the researcher brings his department directors together to review the data collected in the country's 50‑odd meteorological stations, compare them to those of the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and establish local forecasts for the next month. The agronomy technicians use them to make recommendations to farmers about when to harvest, fertilize or apply fungicides to their coffee trees.

Last year, with the funds from IDRC and Tim Hortons, Cenicafé visited sites to see whether the organization was protecting coffee growers from the threat of climate change. Researcher Fernando Farfán, and his team started by visiting 438 coffee growers chosen randomly in three regions to perform a detailed analysis of their practices, analyze the health of the coffee trees, the water and soil quality, and to ask farmers about damages they had sustained and their perception of climate change.

“Our data are still preliminary, but we believe that three quarters of farms could tolerate greater variability in climate conditions with a few simple adaptations, such as plant densification,” explains Fernando Farfán, who is equally comfortable in the laboratory as on the steep slopes of the plantations. The results of this study were shared with Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung, a German foundation. Funded by Tim Hortons and other large coffee distributors, this non-governmental organization helps coffee growers in Latin America, Africa, and Vietnam adapt.

But the battle is not over. Last winter, Colombia, like all of South America, had to deal with exceptional downpours. In the centre of the country, which normally alternates between a three-month dry season and a three-month rainy season, it rained almost as much during the dry season — from January to March — as during a normal rainy season. Early spring was a disaster: in April, rainstorms caused landslides that left 40 people dead and missing in the city of Manizales, in the heart of the coffee region.

During its 60 years of existence, Hacienda Venecia, located about 30 kilometres south of Manizales, has seen its fair share of challenges. But the owner of this large family farm is more concerned than ever. Since taking over 15 years ago, Juan Pablo Echeverri has worked hard to apply Cenicafé's methods, obtain international UTZ certification — which guarantees that his principles are sustainable — and export his coffee, one of the most renowned in Colombia, and famous as far away as Japan. The farmer is a shrewd businessman, who has seen the problems in the coffee sector coming for a long time. “Even with a lot of competition, our sales are very good! It is production that concerns us.”

The farm is ideally situated in the country's most favourable ecozone for this demanding plant. Nestled in a lush green valley, fields of banana trees and patches of forest protect the coffee trees, which are planted in tight rows at an altitude of between 1,300 m and 1,600 m. Approximately 60 people work in the fields or in the small processing plant where the fruit pulp is removed, and the fruit is sorted by quality and dried. Almost everything produced here is exported.

However, last year the coffee grower decided to pull out several rows of coffee trees infested with broca. “Fifteen years ago, we had localized attacks and you could pick the insects out by hand. Now they are everywhere on our lowest plots. We cannot continue spraying everything with insecticides!” exclaimed Juan Pablo Echeverri, who doubts that researchers will manage to act quickly enough to deal with the climate threat. “Our environment is changing at a crazy speed! We often see birds and iguanas on the farm that were not there when I was child. I don’t know how long we can hold out,” he says gravely.

To make up for his losses, the coffee grower relies on tourism, which he hopes to see grow in the wake of the peace accord that the State signed with FARC in November 2016. The family home, a red and white building with a clay tile roof and architecture typical of the region, was transformed into a bed and breakfast. The neighbours, who are struggling to make a living from their coffee, supplement their income by maintaining the pool. The strategy is working: the guided tour of the plantation and drying plant, followed by a tasting, is attracting increasing numbers of foreign tourists.

The farmer has also planted a few cocoa trees to see if they would thrive. A few days before the harvest, he crosses his fingers. “Normally, at our latitude, cocoa production is not great at elevations above 1,000 m because it is too cold. But the climate is changing so quickly that it’s worth a try.”

Will coffee addicts have to switch to hot chocolate? That remains uncertain, because cocoa is also struggling due to climate change...


Valérie Borde traveled to Colombia at the invitation of IDRC, which supports the Cenicafé research centre.

This article was originally published in the September 2017 edition of the magazine L'Actualité.

 

 

Photo: Neil Palmer / CIAT