Study suggests cocoa production could replace coffee farming in Central America

New research has suggested that half of the current coffee plantations in Mesoamerica that are vulnerable to global warming could be replaced by cocoa in the future. “This opens a window of opportunity for climate change adaptation,” says Kaue de Sousa, Research Fellow and leading author of the study. “The interest of smallholder farmers in cocoa is growing, driven by the vulnerability of coffee in the changing climate. Now we have to build capacity among smallholders to adapt their crop systems successfully.” This study was carried out in partnership with the Inland Norway University, Bioversity International, World Agroforestry, and Wageningen University and Research. Researchers say coffee production, especially of Arabica, will likely decrease as global warming and extreme weather events reduce the geographical areas where it grows best. These also increase its susceptibility to pest and disease outbreaks, with coffee leaf rust affecting 70 per cent of Central American coffee farms in 2017. Cocoa, however, may have a more positive future. While the study identifies cocoa as being less affected then coffee by global warming, researchers believe farmers could adjust their agroforestry production to mitigate the effects of climate change. Coffee and cocoa are frequently grown under agroforestry management, where other trees are incorporated into farming systems. “Coffee and cocoa are both traditionally grown under tree shade in order to reduce heat stress and conserve soil, but the shade trees are typically ignored in most future climate change studies,” says Roeland Kindt, Senior Ecologist at World Agroforestry. The agroforestry approach provides additional ecosystem services, which make the production system more resilient, for example, by conserving water and providing habitats for birds and insects which can act as natural pest predators. “Agroforestry systems are clear examples of how positive interactions between plants can ameliorate harsh growing conditions and facilitate agricultural productivity. Our study explores which tree species may be more successful in future coffee and cocoa plantations to create more benign microclimates,” says Milena Holmgren, Expert on Ecosystem Resilience to Climate Variability, at Wageningen University. Researchers identified that the ten trees most frequently used in coffee and cocoa agroforestry systems were also the most vulnerable to climate change. They predict the distribution range of almost 80 per cent of tree species in coffee areas and 62 per cent on cocoa areas will drastically shrink. These include tree species that provide fruit, including mango, guava and avocado, or timber, such as cedar. They also estimate a 56 per cent loss of nitrogen-fixing trees, such as poro and guama, which have the ability to enhance soil productivity and conservation. “Despite the concerning decrease in tree suitability, our study provides alternatives for coffee and cocoa agroforestry under the climate emergency faced by farmers today,” de Sousa says. Researchers conclude that transforming agroforestry systems by changing tree species composition remains the best bet to adapt most of the coffee and cocoa farms across Mesoamerica. “Farmers need to rethink current agroforestry species composition and use a portfolio that is suitable in the future climate. This is a challenging task, because it takes a long time for farmers to see their investments bearing fruit,” de Sousa says. “We identified that this potential may rely on currently underutilised tree species, such as June plum, sapodilla and breadnut; species that are currently present in coffee and cocoa systems, but in low densities, as they are mainly remnants of previous farm vegetation rather than being actively planted and managed by farmers.” Senior Author Jenny Ordonez says, “This study is a very useful first step to improve the design of agroforestry systems as it shows a window of opportunities to maintain diversified agroforestry systems using underutilised species or novel combinations of species. It also opens new areas of research to promote the use of underutilized species which will maintain their suitability under climate change.” Global Coffee Report has launched a LinkedIn Showcase page. Follow HERE for up-to-date news and analysis of the global coffee industry.

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