Science Steps Forwards: producers need public-private investments to protect from drought/disease

At the 112th session of the International Coffee Council in early March 2014, delegates from coffee producing and consuming nations discussed several major problems currently faced by farmers.ICO coffee

In Central America, coffee farmers saw their trees ravaged by coffee leaf rust, a fungus that seemed almost impossible to contain. In Brazil, the worst drought in decades sparked fears that the supplier of a third of the world’s coffee would face a serious deficit, driving prices up.

Although these individual events are not conclusive evidence of the detrimental effect of climate change, they are indicative of an ongoing trend where extreme climatic events are to be expected more often.

Furthermore, in early April 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report which predicted serious threats to coffee due to rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns.

Based on a thorough review of scientific studies on climate change from around the globe, the IPCC projected that coffee production, especially Arabica, would be significantly reduced by the spread of plant diseases and pests in all countries studied by 2050.

In Brazil, for example, a temperature rise of 3°Celsius would cut the area suitable for coffee production by two-thirds in the states of Minas Gerais and Sao Paolo and eliminate it in others.

In Kenya, regions which currently have an average growing suitability of 60 to 80 per cent would decrease to between 30 and 50 per cent.

These predictions require decisive action to secure our supplies of coffee and protect the livelihoods of millions of farming families around the world. It is time for the public and private sectors to step up and invest in robust scientific research and extension services for farmers.

At the ICO, we speak to the media, stakeholders, and others interested in the coffee sector about climate change and coffee prices on a weekly basis.

Questions regarding the effects that climate change may have on retail prices for consumers always come up.

While coffee lovers may not see a significant rise in the price of their cup of coffee in the short term, we should not underestimate the threat that climate change poses for prices in the long term.

Climate change affects much more than just yields, it affects quality, and this is a serious threat to a sector that is increasingly interested in the sale of high-quality, differentiated coffees.

If we do nothing to mitigate the effects that climate change will have on coffee production, everyone along the supply chain will suffer – but farmers will be hit the hardest. It is the millions of smallholder, coffee-producing families who live in regions of the world with the lowest levels of access to agricultural services or protections whose livelihoods will be disrupted the most.

Most industrialised nations have systems of agricultural research and development that support their food industries.

Governments, private companies, and foundations collaborate to invest in scientific research of major food crops to support the needs of farmers with disease-resistant crop varieties, innovations in farming implements, knowledge on efficient farming techniques, among other services.

An excellent example of this type of public-private partnership in agriculture is embodied in the innovations of the Green Revolution which continue to impact our world today.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations funded work led by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Norman Borlaug to breed varieties of wheat and rice that are credited with having prevented famines in Latin America and Asia.

These kinds of services tend to be underfunded in most regions where coffee is grown but governments who have embraced the model have seen the benefits to their agricultural sector and their economies.

The governments of Colombia and Brazil, for example, have strong research and extension programs that support their coffee farmers.

Thanks to these systems, Colombia was able to react relatively quickly when its coffee production was hit with coffee leaf rust in 2009, deploying extension agents to conduct an intensive replanting effort.

Brazil is renowned for its productive agricultural research and extension services, which are also linked to its public universities, and support the world’s largest coffee producer.

Faced with an increase in pests, diseases, and droughts, one of the most crucial agricultural services required by the coffee sector today is plant breeding to produce more resilient hybrid coffee varieties.

Natural plant crossing and selection has been practised for thousands of years and has produced the healthy, climate-adapted crops that support the world’s population today. While many coffee producing countries have publicly funded coffee breeding programs, unlike most other highly traded agricultural commodities like wheat, rice, and maize, there has been no advanced genetic work (non-GMO) and little international cooperation done in coffee plant breeding, until now.

The public and private sectors need to act now to support coffee science and extension, engaging the consumer to get involved as well. We must support scientists and extension agents at public agricultural research institutions to bring new coffee varieties as well as information on best practices to farmers.

Public-private partnerships like the World Coffee Research (WCR) program promise to revolutionise our scientific knowledge of coffee and produce hybrids for both higher quality and yield.

WCR is a non-profit program funded by companies of the global coffee industry and led by scientists from universities and research institutions around the world.

Through formal agreements with producing countries (including members of the ICO) research organisations will host variety trials and collaborate on the production of stronger coffee varieties for their farmers.

In its efforts to support scientific research activities of WCR and its partners in producing and consuming countries, the ICO will be collaborating with WCR and PROMECAFE on the 2nd International Coffee Rust Summit to take place in 2015.

As the main intergovernmental organisation for coffee, bringing together exporting and importing governments to tackle the challenges facing the world coffee sector, we at the ICO are dedicated to providing leadership through the challenges presented by climate change.

To better inform all stakeholders in the coffee sector of the challenges farmers are facing, we publish statistics and monthly market reports. Our staff respond to media requests for data and interviews on a daily basis to bring information to the consumer.

We continue advocating for the public-private financial support of colleagues in innovative programmes like Coffee & Climate (c&c), an initiative which collects and consolidates best practices for adaptation in four project regions. The ICO is in talks with colleagues at c&c regarding hosting and expanding their online platform of case studies in collaboration with coffee research and extension organisations around the globe.

In addition to a lack of research and extension services, insufficient access to mainstream financial mechanisms is an obstacle preventing producers from adopting sustainable farming practises and adapting to the prevalent threat of climate change.

With limited opportunities to obtain low-interest loans, farmers find it difficult to invest in their farms and even harder to recover when disaster strikes.

The ICO is addressing this issue through the Consultative Forum on Coffee Sector Finance, which aims to facilitate dialogue on topics related to finance and risk management in the coffee sector, with a particular emphasis on small and medium scale producers.

The 4th Consultative Forum will be held in London in September and will bring together major donors and multilateral financial institutions along with coffee producers to ensure that the financing available from these institutions meets the very specific needs of the coffee sector, helping to promote a sustainable coffee economy.

To help our member countries make scientifically sound decisions on climate change adaptation policies and investments, the ICO will be producing a report on coffee sector adaptation initiatives to climate change which will include plans to diversify the existing Projects Committee to include scientists from national and international research institutions and universities.

The first phase of the report will be presented in New York in September 2014 and the second phase and final submission will be done in Paris in September 2015 to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCC).

There is a sense of urgency in the coffee world and it is of prime importance that we use science to inform policy. We must never forget that coffee farmers depend on their crops to ensure that they put food on the table and send their children to school.

The climate is changing now and will continue to change but there is hope. Adaptation is possible if we support strong public-private investments in scientific research and the functional tools to support the men and women who grow our coffee. Let’s work together to make this happen. 

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