‘Coping Mechanisms’ from The 25th International Conference on Coffee Science

It would seem that Mother Nature has recently made a game of ticking off a list of coffee producing countries to attack. First, the world’s largest producer Brazil saw its worst drought in more than 70 years, bringing production down around 30 per cent. Then the world’s second largest producer Vietnam saw an extra heavy onset of deadly flooding. Indonesia and India followed, and together the Southeast Asian coffee giants are reporting losses of between 20 – 30 per cent. In Central America, climate change is being blamed for the most severe outbreak of rust in recent history, which coupled with a severe drought has sent around 2.8 million people on food aid. These occurrences, however, are no games of a coffee-hating higher power, but a sharp reminder that climate change is already having a significant effect on the coffee industry, as it is on food production the world over. The most recent report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed that the impact of climate-related extremes, including droughts and floods, are creating a noticeable disruption in food production. It warned that countries need plans of attack to deal with modern environments, noting that: “For countries at all levels of development, these impacts are consistent with a significant lack of preparedness for current climate variability in some sectors.” Fortunately, the coffee industry’s scientific community has started taking the offensive. The 25th International Conference on Coffee Science (ASIC) welcomed plans on how the scientific community is helping producers prepare for, and mitigate, the effects of climate change. From a weather warning system in Colombia, to the use of Terroir growing principles in Ethiopia and a Coffee Reforestation Project in Mexico, coffee producers of the future will have more power in the face of Mother Nature. One of the most exciting announcements – drawing massive audience applause – was from Colombian Coffee Growers Federation’s (FNC) R&D Center, Cenicafé, who served as one of the official hosts of the ASIC conference. “In the next 25 – 50 years the climate will be warming with between 2 – 4 degrees Celsius. Our principal target is to figure out how we can lower the risk caused by these climatic changes for the growers,” Cenicafé Director Fernando Gast tells GCR Magazine on the sidelines of ASIC in Armenia, the capital of Quindio in the heart of Colombia’s Eje Cafetero coffee region. “The error that so easily is committed today is that growers are only preparing for the event of an unexpected La Nina. The same variability in the weather from the climatic cycles today may suddenly bring on an El Nino instead.” Gast knows this problem better than most. When it comes to climate and coffee, few countries have been hit as hard as Colombia. From 2008 to 2012, production dropped a stunning 40 per cent, largely due to changes in the climate cycles. Because Colombian growers harvest two crops a year, it’s been especially challenging to curb the onset of crop pests and related growing problems. “At the heart of the crisis, Cenicafé was given a mandate by the FNC to deepen our research and look into specific models which could help ease the negative effects for growers,” he says. The result was the excited announcement of a new coffee “climate-agronomist” project that Cenicafé will manage. “This year we started the implementation of the world’s first early warning system for coffee growers here in Colombia. Through it, producers can learn of not just the possibility of an unseasonal El Nino or La Nina, but get concrete advice on what to do to prevent the worst damage, even with limited resources,” Gast says. Similar to an Early Tsunami warning system, the system will send a special message out to all the FNC’s producer members in a particular region or province if a potential weather hazard is detected. To begin with, the information will be delivered via the FNC’s 15,000 Extension Workers, and progressively the growers will receive information relevant to their farms direction. The FNC’s members include around 500,000 coffee growers in the country. The warning system will help producers try to curb the worst effects of an either devastating drought or excessive dryness from an El Nino. This early warning system will help growers prepare for what’s to come. For instance, Gast explains how an understanding of the weather can help direct farmers on when to fertilize: “Here in Quindio we have three completely different coffee growing regions with different risks from either an El Nino or La Nina. In the event of an unseasonal El Nino for the winter season, which primarily is in December and January, we recommend that growers start fertilizing now or within the next month when there is still humidity left in the soils,” Gast tells GCR Magazine in mid-September. Producers in a regular crop season with regular weather patterns would usually wait to fertilise until after the flowering for the Mitaca, or mid-crop, which starts in November. In the event of a drought, however, such an investment would be lost as soils without humidity will have no way to absorb the fertiliser and other inputs. “This way an early fertilisation would leave the trees in a much better shape to face an unseasonal El Nino, and hence be better prepared to cope with the effects and leave at least a part of the farm in better shape for producing a harvest, even with less rainfall,” explains Gast. With the basics of coffee production and tree and farm management guided by the same agronomic principles across the world, Cenicafé’s work should benefit coffee farmers everywhere.  This isn’t to say that Cenicafé’s approach should necessarily be universal. In the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia, scientists are taking a different approach. As the onslaught of weather has brutally hit growers with little relief in sight, producers here are receiving technical advice on how to apply Terroir principles to mitigate some of the issues caused by climate. The concept of Terroir had traditionally been used in the French wine appellation system, but is today increasingly being adapted to specialty coffee to explain the interaction between a set of unique characteristics such as geography and climate with plant genetics. According to Getu Bekele, of the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research, an understanding of Terroir could now be a key to securing the coffee supply of the future. “What we tried to address in this study was how to strengthen Arabica coffee breeding through the optimum use of coffee Terroir. This program has demonstrated remarkable results via the use of local genetic diversity,” said Bekele in a presentation at the ASIC conference. “We need to adapt the varieties to the environment. By maintaining the typical quality of each locality in the research project, we avoided most adaptation problems and were able to maintain the local varieties preferred by the farmers,” he tells GCR Magazine, adding: “The concept of Terroir might be our last resort.” In Mexico, meanwhile, Indigenous smallholder coffee producers in the central Puebla state are coming to the end of the pilot phase of a Coffee Reforestation Project. The project uses coffee farms to create natural buffer zones between urban areas and pristine forest reserves. Mexico is one of the five most biologically diverse countries in the world. Its forests are home to 10 per cent of the earth’s plant and animal species, but the ecosystems have suffered from years of rapid industrialisation including the conversion of forests to farmland, according to the Rainforest Alliance. This and other projects are part of a series of efforts engaging public and private partnerships into addressing the negative effects of climate change. The Mexico Alliance for Reducing Carbon Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (MREDD) is a USAID-funded coalition of NGOs that includes groups such as the Rainforest Alliance and The Nature Conservancy. Project stakeholders are setting up a national system in Mexico that can monitor, report and verify carbon sequestration (the capturing of carbon dioxide), and the emissions that are avoided as the result of sustainable land management. “The country’s forests and ecosystems are jeopardised by rapid development and the conversion of forests to farmland – two of the main drivers of climate change,” said the Rainforest Alliance in comments sent to GCR Magazine. By reducing carbon emissions from deforestation and degradation, in combination with forest activation, the project seeks to fix some of the damage that is contributing to negative climate change. Of all the differing strategies and opinions in fighting climate change, among this scientific community, there was one universally shared opinion: changes in the earth’s temperature are real, and the effects are only going to get worse. “Climate change is happening and we are seeing quite worrying trends,” Dr. Peter Baker, a commodities development specialist at CABI, a not-for-profit science-based development organisation, told the ASIC the crowd. “Some scientists believe that climate change could push coffee growing to the brink of extinction. Regardless of what we believe, we really need to study the capacity of these plants to adapt to climate change. That will be very critical.” GCR

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