World Coffee Research reveals coffee climate woes

A new study commissioned by World Coffee Research (WCR) has found that some of the world’s most productive coffee regions will be worst affected by climate change. The study was commissioned to help WCR locate sites for the International Multi-location Variety Trial, a comparative study of how 35 coffee varieties perform across the world in different climate zones. The data will be used to guide WCR’s global coffee breeding program, which is working to adapt the coffee plant so that it produces high quality coffee with good yields under a climate-constrained environment. However the findings of the study, which was undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security, have found that the future of Arabica production is under significant threat from the effects of climate change. The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, confirms predictions that half of the land currently suitable for Arabica coffee production will no longer be suitable by 2050. However, it also identifies the key climate zones in which coffee flourishes, and shows how these zones will change by 2050, bringing new insights into what can be done to adapt. “Overall, the Arabica market is extremely threatened,” says the study’s lead author Christian Bunn, a researcher at the Colombia-based International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). These findings are made all the more serious by the fact that the popularity of coffee is growing rapidly despite the increasingly challenging conditions for its production. “There is rising demand,” Bunn says. “In the future, we’d need more area to grow coffee on, but we’re going to have less.” Bunn does predict that, as the climate shifts, new areas will become suitable for coffee growing, but not enough to make up for the loss of capacity in the biggest producing areas. “I believe high locations in East Africa and Colombia, Ecuador and possibly Indonesia might become more suitable,” he says. “But they will have to be very productive to meet the demand because Brazil, the current powerhouse, is going to see big losses.” Coffee is currently grown in many different climate zones in the equatorial belt – from hot and dry, to cooler and wetter – but previous studies of coffee and climate change only distinguished between areas that are or will be “suitable” or “unsuitable” for coffee growing. This limited their practical usefulness for adapting coffee to climate change.  The new study unlocks the black box of “suitability” and shows how the different climate zones are expected to fare over the next 35 years.  This is the first time that researchers have mapped coffee’s current and future climate zones globally. Bunn says that the effects of a changing climate are particularly pertinent to a crop like coffee. “Climate change for coffee is extremely serious. It’s a perennial crop, which means what you plant today could be in the ground still in 2050 – it will get the full impact of climate change,” he says. Not all coffee climates will be affected equally by climate change. Areas around the equator with seasonally constant temperatures, including many parts of Colombia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Indonesia, will be least affected by climate change. Approximately 60 per cent of areas with this climate will be unchanged in 2050. This is particularly good news for the specialty coffee industry, which relies on these regions for its highest quality coffees. The highest losses will be in hot, dry climates such as the northern area of Brazil’s largest coffee producing state, Minas Gerais, parts of India, and Nicaragua. According to the findings of the study, nearly 80 per cent of the land in this climate zone will become unsuitable for coffee by 2050. Cool but dry climates, such as those in western São Paulo state in Brazil, will also see substantial losses. Meanwhile, substantial areas that currently have cooler or wetter climates will become hot and dry by 2050. What is clear from these findings is that Arabica coffee plants will have to become better adapted to heat and drought stress, and coffee growers will need to tailor their practices toward hot and dry conditions. “We can use the genetics of coffee to buy more time,” says Tim Schilling, co-author of the report and Executive Director of WCR. “The information in this report will be invaluable as we work to create new, climate-resilient varieties tailored to individual climatic zones.” The study also provides more detail on how climate change will impact the elevations at which coffee can grow well. By 2050, the median elevation of land suitable for Arabica coffee will be more than 300 metres higher than now, but in zones with hot and wet climates, such as in Southern Mexico, coffee will need to migrate nearly 500 metres higher. An estimated 25 million farmers produce coffee on over 11 million hectares, most of whom are smallholders who depend on coffee for their livelihoods. As the climates in their areas shift from one type to another, coffee growers will need to adapt their agronomic practices to remain competitive as the climates in their areas shift from one type to another, for example by learning from farmers who are currently productive in the hot and dry climate zone. However, adaptation will be difficult for smallholders as coffee “climbs up the mountain” or climates shift to become hotter and drier, as these farmers are extremely unlikely to have the financial means to just shift their operations to more suitable areas or even to invest in less expensive but still costly adaptations, like irrigation or planting new varieties. On the broader question of whether the industry should simply be looking to migrate production into new areas with more suitable post-climate change climate conditions, Bunn says the answer is not that simple. “Migrating north and south is not a smart strategy,” Bunn says. “Look at Southern Brazil – summer temperatures are hot, winter is cool. People think as the climate warms frost stress will disappear, but there will still be some occasional frost, and heat stress will be much higher.” By mapping current and future climate zones, the study’s findings will allow for more skillful and targeted climate adaptation planning. “This research gives, for the first time, spatially-explicit insights about what type of adaptation is needed,” says Dr. Peter Läderach, co-author of the report and senior climate change specialist for CIAT. “Hot-dry climates will need to adapt differently than hot-wet ones […] This information will help to guide the adaption process.” To develop the next generation of climate-smart varieties, scientists need to understand how the environments in which coffee grows impact the plants’ genetics — enabling or disabling genetic traits from expressing themselves (GEI). “To execute these studies in coffee, which WCR is doing with the breeding project, it requires a deep understanding and mapping of different and contrasting coffee climates,” says Christophe Montagnon, a scientific advisor to WCR. “We did not have this understanding before Dr. Bunn’s study – we have it now.” The results of the study will be used to help guide WCR’s global breeding program, which aims to find and develop new varieties that are well adapted to local conditions, now and in the future. “So we can ask, the results from this site, to which area can we apply this?” Bunn says. “WCR’s interest here was how can we place trial sites strategically so they are efficient and cover a lot of area and are most representative.” GCR

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