Coffee Crisis on the Brew in Central America

Our most popular coffee, Arabica, is produced  by small-scale farms in parts of Africa and Latin America. Not only is the supply chain of this $70 billion industry in danger, but so are the livelihoods of the estimated 25 million farmers who grow coffee. Unlike Robusta that is heat tolerant and grown at lower elevations,  Arabica is particularly sensitive to growing conditions at higher elevations with a narrow range of optimal growing temperatures 64-70 Fahrenheit (20-24 Celsius).  Climate change has increased both the temperature and weather variability experienced by Arabica that is nudging this crop out of its optimal environment and with it nudging farmers off of their coffee plantations in search of a more secure livelihood.  The challenge does not stop there; as the production environment changes, it increases the susceptibility of coffee to key diseases like coffee rust and pests like the coffee borer which are thriving under these new climates. This is further compounded by emerging drought conditions or this years’ crop.

aWhere’s analysis of this situation shows with striking clarity the changes coffee production is experiencing in weather variability and extremes in Central America.

Map 1: Precipitation over potential evapotranspiration (P/PET) in coffee growing areas of Central America:  June 2019

June had precipitation that was well below potential evapotranspiration (the rate at which a plant uses water to survive or P/PET – see maps 1 and 2).  Conditions were much were too dry for healthy vegetation across a large part of the central Honduran coffee areas. Though primarily Robusta and more heat tolerant, the moisture conditions are even stressing this “robust” coffee type. Unfortunately there is no relief in sight for smallholder farmers in this region as the forecast continues to be hot and dry for the next week – building on a dryer June than the average for the past decade.

Map 2: P/PET Difference from long-term normal:  June 19 – July 18, 2019

What does this mean for you – the coffee consumer? Our supply of coffee is at risk, especially Arabica as climate patterns shift. It takes approximately 5 years for a coffee plant to start producing coffee berries that are transformed into dried beans for roasting. Fortunately the tools exist to plan for the future so farmers can anticipate which varieties to grow and can start planting now what will be harvested in 5 years. Using big data analytics, such as the maps above, we are able to anticipate future production environments. Unfortunately, smallholder farmers are not able to easily access these resources but aWhere is looking for ways to partner with the coffee sector to empower coffee farmers with these insights to become more resilient to the impact of climate change and to ensure the world has a steady supply of coffee to start their day.

Refer to these recent articles that continue to shed light on the impact of climate change on coffee and coffee farmers:
Central American Farmers Head to the U.S., Fleeing Climate Change
“Climate change is destroying some farms,” said Mr. Vicen, 41.  Beyond that, some of his healthier plants had begun to blossom nearly two months ahead of schedule because of a heavy unseasonable downpour, throwing the entire growing cycle into doubt. (New York Times, K. Semple, April 13, 2019)
How Climate Change Hurts Coffee
Warming will especially damage the higher-quality Arabica bean, which grows best between 64°F and 70°F. Arabica accounts for about two thirds of global coffee production but is limited to subtropical highlands in Brazil, Central America, and East Africa. (Climate Central, January 16, 2019).
In El Salvador, climate change means less coffee and more migrants
“In past decades, you had hundreds of thousands of people working on coffee farms to harvest coffee and to process it. Because of the low production and low investment in coffee, a lot of those farm workers are choosing to migrate to earn seasonal income rather than to work on coffee farms,” said Paul Hicks, a coffee and water specialist with Catholic Relief Services in El Salvador. (PRI, April 24, 2019)