Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Climate Change Brewing up Problems for Coffee Producers 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, April 7 / 14

Zack Gross

During the “never-ending winter” we had this year across Canada, they say that March came in like a polar bear and went out like a pain in the . . . 

The latest report on climate change from the United Nations – a 32-volume, 2,600-page report by 300 scientists – says that weather volatility is growing at a greater rate than at first anticipated and risks to agriculture, jobs and human security will soon impact everyone on the planet.

As this column has reported in the past, seas are rising and causing floods, droughts come more often killing crops, super-storms like Sandy in the US and Haiyan in the Philippines are causing immense destruction and loss of life, and on and on.  As we live on a “small planet,” what goes wrong in one country can have a huge effect in another. 

Scholars argue that the Arab Spring of the past few years, during which many Middle Eastern countries were the scene of demonstrations leading to political change, was caused in part by a drought in China!  With the Chinese wheat crop greatly reduced, food imports to countries such as Egypt, Syria and Libya were low and prices greatly increased.  Food prices in poorer countries have actually gone up by one-third in recent years.  This has led to people being hungry, being angry and pushing for political change.

It is estimated that the greatest effect of climate change will take place in Asia with widespread flooding in low-lying areas, displacement of population causing conflict over meagre resources, and death due to intensifying heat waves.  But there is hope!  The next UN report is due to be released later this spring, focusing on efforts being made to mitigate the impact of these environmental challenges.

Of course, there will always be deniers of the reality of climate change.  However, this point of view is becoming harder to justify.  When the leader of Alberta’s Wild Rose Party voiced her doubts during their last election, it directly contributed to her surprising loss at the polls. 

But nothing increases our fear of the planet’s future quite like The Guardian’s recent article on the impact of climate change on coffee production.  The future is not bright for those of us with a caffeine addiction!

Not only will “climate change coffee be expensive” – it will also taste bad!  Every morning, two billion cups of coffee are consumed by people around the world.  An official from the International Coffee Organization says that rising heat, extreme weather events and attacks by ferocious pests caused by climate change mean that “the coffee industry is heading for a big disaster
.” The billions of coffee drinkers, as well as 25 million rural producer households, will be hit hard.

Rising temperatures will reduce the area suitable on Earth for coffee production.  Even an increase of an average of two degrees Celsius will have a huge impact.  A three degree rise would cut Brazil’s coffee production area by two-thirds and this two or three degree amount is on the low side for what is predicted.  A recent drought in Brazil caused coffee prices to double. With higher temperatures also come lower yields and poorer taste, based on the plant’s metabolism.

Higher temperatures have already caused major problems in Central America with the advent of the leaf rust fungus that has reduced yields 40% this year compared to 2011.  One-quarter of people formerly working in coffee production in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras have been forced to migrate in recent years due to this crisis.

In East Africa, coffee’s original home, the berry borer beetle, unknown until 2000 in the higher altitude coffee growing areas, has become an issue with increased temperatures.  As the number of degrees rises, the beetle moves up coffee-producing hillsides in Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, causing $500 million worth of damage every year.  The reproductive cycle of these beetles has doubled as well in the warmer climate. 

The International Coffee Organization fears that many of the affected countries will just drop out of the coffee industry, as they don’t have the resources to adapt.  This will mean lost jobs, increased poverty, uncontrolled growth of urban areas and social conflict.  Research is underway to develop new coffee varieties based on “heritage” genetically diverse stocks that have been stored by the UN for many years.  But even optimists say that it is a race against time and should have been initiated a decade ago.

There is a Manitoba connection to this story in that the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), headquartered in Winnipeg, has worked with all participants in the coffee trade in Uganda to facilitate some kind of cooperative adaption to the dangers of climate change. The IISD has brought together coffee farmers, input suppliers, processors, exporters and others to understand how climate change impacts on each link in the supply chain and what actions they need to take to mitigate the effects.

So, take some time to enjoy your next cup of coffee and consider the risks it faces. Those “global issues” do indeed hit home!


Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations. 
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