Scientists pinpoint the world’s most vulnerable coffee zones

New research gives fresh insights into which of the world’s arabica coffee-producing zones will bear the brunt of climate change.

The biggest losers will be in hotter areas with long dry seasons, such as parts of Brazil and Central America. There, almost 80% of land currently used to grow arabica coffee will become unsuitable by 2050.

Even the safest areas – those with cooler and more constant temperatures, considered optimal for arabica – could suffer a one-third slump in suitability. These include the equatorial highlands in parts of East Africa, Colombia and Indonesia.

The findings, by scientists at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), World Coffee Research, and the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) are published today in the journal PLOS ONE .

You can read the official press release here.

Zoning-in on coffee futures

An estimated 25 million farmers grow arabica coffee around the world, many of them smallholders with few alternatives for producing high-value cash crops. But the plant is highly sensitive to rising temperatures, unpredictable rains, and pest and disease outbreaks, all of which are expected to become more likely as a result of climate change.

The new research shows for the first time how each of five “agro-ecological zones” for arabica will be affected by the middle of the century.

The findings are in agreement with recent projections of an overall 50% drop in the suitability of coffee growing areas across the board. But researchers hope that understanding more about how specific arabica-growing zones will fare will help crop breeders, policy makers and farmers respond.

World Coffee Research, which commissioned the study, will use the findings to determine the best locations for trials of 35 coffee varieties. The results will be used to guide the organisation’s global coffee breeding program, which is working to adapt the coffee plant to the effects of climate change.

“Overall, the arabica market is extremely threatened,” says CIAT’s Christian Bunn, lead author of the study. “In the future, we’ll need more area to grow coffee to meet the rising demand, but we’re going to have less. While some areas might become more suitable for coffee, they will have to be very productive to meet demand because Brazil, the current powerhouse, is going to see big losses.”

Trouble brewing in Central America

For Peter Laderach, CIAT scientist and one of the authors of the report, the findings for Central America are particularly worrying. “Coffee production is a major employer in rural El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, providing incomes for thousands of smallholder farmers and day labourers, and as such it’s an important contributor to GDP in the region,” he says. “A collapse in the coffee business could be an economic and social disaster.”

CIAT Blog - Nic coffee

“Already, large numbers of people in Central America are moving from rural areas to cities in search of work, and growing numbers of economic migrants are leaving the region altogether,” he continues. “There’s a strong chance that without effective planning, the effects of climate change on coffee could exacerbate those trends.”

As well as the importance of breeding arabica varieties that can withstand some of the effects of climate change, Laderach also stresses the importance of developing business models that spread the risk involved responding to the challenge.

“Climate change adaptation shouldn’t fall on farmers alone, especially when they are part of an international value chain, as is the case with arabica coffee. Strong links and open dialogue between farmers, buyers and roasters can help minimise the risks across the value chain.

“The critical point is to start planning now.”

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