Sustainability Q&A Live #2 – How Does Climate Change Affect Coffee?

Here at Counter Culture, we strive for real sustainability and a commitment to cutting-edge coffee education. As part of our mission, we have started a live, monthly video discussion with our Sustainability Manager, Meredith Taylor, about varying topics that relate to sustainability in the coffee industry. The videos will be streamed live on the first Wednesday of every month on Facebook and Instagram—where we will be taking questions from viewers online!

The second episode of the series can be viewed here. The following excerpt highlights the discussion from October about how climate change affects the coffee industry and its farmers.

What is climate change?
While global warming refers specifically to the increase in temperature around the world, climate change refers to both change in temperature and change in weather patterns. Examples include the changing of the strength and timing of winds or precipitation.

How does climate change affect coffee?
Coffee is a sensitive crop that takes a long time to grow and harvest. Because coffee comes from a fruit that grows on trees, it is in the same place as it grows for thirty-plus years. This makes it highly susceptible to changing weather patterns. While coffee can grow in different locations, high quality beans are only produced under specific conditions which can be thrown off by climate change.

Coffee generally flowers and fruits on a yearly cycle, and relies heavily on weather patterns to know when to do so. This means that changes in weather affect the biological cycle of the plant and, in the case of torrential rain during a normally dry season for example, can dramatically reduce the volume and/or quality of the beans a tree produces.

It is estimated that by 2050, there will be a 50% decrease in land that is suitable for growing coffee.

High-quality coffee grows at high altitudes and in many places, as temperatures warm and soil humidity changes, coffee cultivation cannot continue to just “move up the mountain” indefinitely.

What effects have we already seen in the coffee industry due to climate change?
A very commonly cited effect in the past few years is a disease called roya, which causes “coffee leaf rust.” The spread of the fungus is largely attributed to climate change and has been exacerbated by lack of funds to prevent the disease. The wetter, warmer weather is a prime condition for roya and led to a cut in production and quality in 2012 in areas of South America and Latin America, causing threats to coffee farmers’ livelihoods.

What does this mean for coffee farmers?
Approximately 125 million people around the world depend on coffee for their livelihood and of that, about 20% or 25 million are small holder farmers who grow coffee on small plots of land; these farmers make up about 80% of the coffee we consume. It is also often the case that the places where coffee is grown rely on the crop to be the primary driver of the economy in the community and the region, if not the whole country.

Given these facts, it’s easy to see how difficult it can be for farmers dealing with climate change. When a hard rain knocks off the fruit from your trees that you’ve been growing for a year or you suffer from droughts, you can’t make a living.

Could we remedy this issue by growing coffee indoors in warehouses?
While it seems like an obvious idea and is possible, it’s not probable. Coffee needs a lot of space to grow and translating all of the outdoor space to indoors would be very difficult. You also have to take into account that most of the carbon emissions put out into the atmosphere are produced by countries that consume coffee, not those who produce it. Moving production indoors would mean an inevitable increase in electricity use and more emissions.

If rainfall affects coffee farmers, how can you counteract it?
Farming in general is hard because some things are always out of the farmer’s control—weather and climate change is one of them. That being said, some farmers plant additional, taller, shade trees to help keep the flowers or cherries from falling off the coffee trees when it rains. The opposite problem caused by climate change is periods of drought like Kenya experienced during their last main harvest.

What does Counter Culture Coffee do to help this problem?
Our sourcing model means we try to buy as much coffee as we can by building long term relationships with farmers. We understand that we’re not scientists but we know we can play an important role as a connector. We visit farms all over the world and we can see what’s happening on the ground and can share the conditions and solutions we encounter with other farmers.

The most exciting thing that we’ve been doing for the past few years is working with a professor and a few groups of graduate students at the Duke University in the Nicholas School of the Environment. Together, we’ve been studying how climate change is impacting different farmers in different places in the world and how to help those farmers choose feasible adaptation solutions.

Climate change is broad and its effects aren’t universal which means that the solutions aren’t universal.

The best thing we can do in the immediate future is focus on what’s happening now and help farmers figure out the best adaptation solutions including things like building solar dryers to dry coffee. This again only works if the farm is able to do it physically and has the resources available to do so.

Building on the work of the Duke students, we’re helping farmers through the process of assessing impacts and finding feasible adaptation solutions with climate change adaptation workshops which we started this past summer. During the first workshop, which took place in Peru, farmers decided that increasing organic fertilizer production was the most impactful solution to climate change. The second climate change workshop will take place in just a few weeks in Guatemala at Finca Nueva Armenia, our partner for over ten years.

Are there coffee-farming practices that offset carbon footprint production?
Organic coffee farming produces fewer carbon emissions than farming that uses nitrogen-based fertilizers. There are also a few projects where farmers are getting paid for generating carbon offset credits through practices like reforestation and avoided deforestation.

How do the recent changes to the EPA affect coffee farmers?
This came up in Peru at the climate change adaptation workshop. At the end of the workshop some of the farmers came up to us and asked if we, in the U.S. know what’s happening to the coffee farms and additionally, if we cared. It can be frustrating, but we know that working through the EPA and waiting on national policy changes isn’t the only way to get things done. We as a company can use what we already do—buy coffee—to make change; it’s on businesses to take the lead.

Industry-wide, what else is happening to offset climate change?
The good news is that there is lots of academic research about climate change and there is recognition in the coffee industry that climate change is a global problem. We know that we can’t solve this problem working as isolated business and organizations. There is a lot of collective action taking place like the Coalition for Coffee Communities where we have partnered with other businesses like Starbucks, Keurig and Green Mountain to work towards collective change. If we want there to be coffee in 20 years, we know we have to work together. We are also partnered with World Coffee Research, which focuses on researching different coffee varieties because some varieties of coffee are better adapted to changing climate conditions.

What can the consumer do to address climate change?
There are a lot of little things you as the consumer can do to mitigate your own footprint. We recently did a blog post about how to make your at home brewing more sustainable. Consumers are also encouraged to do their homework on different coffee companies and support the ones leading the way in finding solutions to climate change.

What are some adaptations that make good fiscal sense?
Climate change adaptations break down into the short game and the long game. The short game refers to whether or not farmers can produce the same level of quality over the next few years by changing practices and the long game refers to whether they can continue to make a livelihood from coffee in 10 to 20 years. A lot of adaptations take upfront investment and one way to address that barrier, aside from better access to credit for farmers, is by committing to and developing long-term partnerships with farmers to reduce the risk of investing in these practices so they know they have someone that will buy their coffee in the future.

To learn more about climate change and the coffee industry, check out this 2016 report by the Climate Institute and our previous blog post on this topic.