Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: Countering the impact of climate change on coffee

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Every year more people wake up to coffee or use it to fuel them day, but according to a comprehensive report recently published by the Climate Institute, this early morning ritual, and everything that goes into making it possible, face significant threats from climate change. 

According to the report​, people around the world drink 2.25 billion cups of coffee a day and consumption is rising about 5% annually, which is good news for the more than 125 million people whose lives rely on the global trade of the commodity crop. 

The bad news is rising temperatures and altered rainfall patterns due to climate change could “halve the area suitable for growing coffee and push production upslope and away from the equator, with far-reaching consequences,”​ according to the report.

To better understand the full threat of climate change to the coffee category, Alex Morgan, director of markets transformation with the Rainforest Alliance discusses in this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast what farmers, suppliers, manufacturers and even consumers can do to help roll back or adapt to the negative impact of climate change.

“Coffee is obviously important to everybody in their daily morning routines, but it is also a highly valued commodity in terms of the trade of it”​ and the millions of farmers around the world whose livelihoods are directly tied to it, he said.

A difficult to grow crop

Unfortunately, he noted, coffee “is a difficult crop to grow. The farmers struggle with a variety of challenges from disease to erosion to unproductive trees and aging trees. Maybe their kids not wanting to grow coffee anymore. And then the crowning challenge, which really touches all of those, is climate change. And [coffee] farmers are absolutely on the front line.”

He explains that coffee grows best at specific altitudes and as temperatures rise, so too are those altitudes. But, he notes, as farmers go higher up the mountains towards their peaks, there is less land available, which means they cannot produce as much.

The second negative impact of climate change is the erratic weather conditions that are “hitting home already,”​ Morgan said. He explains: “The last several years, farmers are at the front of this and they are telling us they are [seeing] more frequent periods of drought and … really heavy storms,”​ which can either hinder the development of coffee cherries or knock coffee flowers from the tree so that the cherries never form.

Changing weather also is linked to increased outbreak of disease and pests.

Specifically, Morgan said a disease called Leaf Rust is spreading “really, really rapidly throughout coffee growing regions and what it ultimately leads to is the coffee tree not putting out cherries”​ because the leaves fall off.

The economic impact

The challenges caused by climate change are not just environmental. They also are economic and given that many coffee farmers already struggle to make enough money during good times, any damage done to their crops due to climate change can have a significant, and potentially long-lasting impact, Morgan said.

“The average small holder farmer has a difficult time maintaining enough of an income for livelihood for a family, so when they are farming productively, often times, they are recouping enough for an income. But when they are presented with drought or increased floods or pest outbreaks and lose 10, 20, 30 and in some cases as much as 70% of their overall production to one of these outbreaks or one of these incidents then it presents massive challenges or a threat to the livelihood of that particular family,”​ he said.

This is prompting some younger generations to leave coffee farming, further threatening the supply line, he added.

Finding solutions

While curbing climate change is a politically-fraught international challenge, Rainforest Alliance is working with farmers and the companies that buy from them to help slow the change and ease the impact.

It has created what it calls a Climate Smart Agriculture Practices module that used to be a set of standards that farmers could add-on to their certification, but which Rainforest Alliance recently folded into its new standards for general certification.

The standards include measure such as planting native trees to serve as wind barriers or buffers during downpours and to create microclimates that keep the ambient temperature lower for better coffee production, Morgan said.

Another strategy Rainforest Alliance advocates is diversifying crops so that if something happens to the coffee one season, the farmers have other cash crops on which they can fall back and additional food sources, he said.

Gaining consumer acceptance

Working with Rainforest Alliance not only ensures a certain level of environmental sustainability, but it also offers companies a powerful marketing tool and story to tell consumers about how they are doing good – which is an increasingly important factor in many shoppers’ decision-making process, Morgan said.

“Consumers are paying attention to these things,”​ and Rainforest Alliance Certification offers a “really robust comprehensive approach to sustainability on farms, but also a system that is easily communicated or easily described to the consumer so that he or she can understand that there is a difference and then they will reward the brand … with their loyalty,”​ he said.

Beyond coffee

Beyond sustainability best practices, Rainforest Alliance is working on other ways to improve the financial position of its farmers by helping them to identify additional sources of income and improving their access to helpful technology.

In addition, Rainforest Alliance is working with other NGOs to ensure laborers are paid not just a minimum wage, but a living wage. This includes drafting a set of standards that define minimum wage and how it can be measured.

While these efforts alone are not enough to completely overcome the impact of climate change, they are a step towards reducing and managing its impact on the world’s coffee supply – meaning as more companies get on board more consumers can rest easy at night knowing that there will be a cup of coffee waiting for them in the morning. 

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