Coffee. It’s one of the most popular plants in the world. It takes about 3-4 years to grow before producing berries which will be picked, washed, pulped, dried, and roasted to make coffee. Coffee lovers around the globe consume about 500 billion cups every year. It’s grown by millions of farmers across Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Not because they are the only smart farmers but because it’s the only area where the coffee plant can grow, around the equator to be precise. And as the man-made climate change is warming the planet, this area is shrinking.
Colombia, one of the biggest coffee producers in the world, where the impact of this crisis can already be felt. There are over a hundred species of the coffee plant. The vast majority occur in the wild, while a few are cultivated on a farm. Two of which are by far the most common. Robusta coffee, which has a bitter taste, and is used to make espresso, and most instant-coffee and Arabica coffee which has a smooth and mild taste and is used for high-quality coffee. Both species require specific conditions to grow, but arabica is particularly sensitive. The plant needs temperatures between 18–21°C. Too hot and the berries won’t grow correctly, too cold and it can freeze. It also needs a specific amount of rain, preferably with a 3-month dry season to flower. The crucial part is that it needs warm days and cool nights. So it grows best at certain elevations only. If you were to create a perfect place for it, it would definitely be on the hilly areas around the equator. Colombia produces the highest quality of the coffee. Specifically, the Zona Cafetera, Colombia’s coffee region, where coffee farmers grow and process it all by hand, which is why Colombian coffee has been considered the best in the world for over a century. But the zona cafetera is also where climate change is already taking a toll.
Climate Change and its effects
Greenhouse gas emissions have warmed the region by 1.2 degrees since 1980. That is enough to push the optimal elevation for coffee higher up the mountain leaving the plants at a lower elevation to overheat and produce lower-quality beans. The warmer climate is also ideal for pests and fungi. Climate change has made it very hard to predict the life cycle of the coffee plant. Since 2013, the amount of land used to grow coffee in Colombia has fallen by more than 7%. And scientists expect things to get worse. The zona cafetera is projected to warm by 0.3 degrees per decade and see more extreme weather. In fact, coffee-growing regions everywhere around the globe are going to be affected sooner or later. A recent study estimates that by 2050 the amount of land that can sustain coffee cultivation will be reduced by 50%. And it’s not just cultivated coffee. Another study estimates that 60% of wild coffee species could be at the risk of extinction because of climate change. Some of these are used to breed more resistant varieties of Arabica which makes them critical to sustaining coffee production.
That’s not only bad news for the plant but also for those who have relied on the coffee industry for generations. In the early 20th century, Americans and Europeans were buying more and more coffee. So prices were high, and that created a boom in coffee-producing countries. Where does it all come from? Mostly, from South America. Colombia was the second-biggest producer in the world at the time. It was mostly grown on large coffee plantations, called haciendas, that dated back to when Colombia was a Spanish colony. And the work was done by peasants, indigenous people, and former slaves, many of whom were forced off their lands and subjected to brutal conditions. The plantations were profitable while prices were high but in 1929, the US economy crashed. Demand for coffee fell and so did the price bankrupting the plantations. Fearing that Colombia’s entire coffee industry would vanish. The government purchased these large coffee fields from the owners who had more than a thousand hectares and broke them up into smaller plots of about 16 hectares each, before selling them to laborers. The idea was that these smaller farms would grow other crops along with coffee to sustain themselves through price fluctuations. This not only saved one of Colombia’s most important industries but turned it into one dominated by small-holder farmers. To support the new small farms in 1927, the government had created Fedecafe, an agency that would organize and represent the farmers, by negotiating fair prices and favorable deals with other countries. The most important one was in 1962 when Colombia signed the International Coffee Agreement with 69 other countries and set a price minimum for export. As coffee prices recovered, Colombia’s small-holder coffee farmers started thriving. By the 1970s, Colombia was using the coffee farmer, or cafetero, as a marketing tool around the world. Because for Colombians, their coffee is more than just the richest in the world, it is a national heritage.
Today, Colombia is the world’s third-largest coffee exporter, and there are about 500,000 mostly small farms that make up the industry, but just as these farmers are starting to face the climate change, the economics that supports them are disappearing. There are several ways farmers can protect their coffee plants from the effects of climate change. Shade trees keep the plants cool and stabilize the soil. Farmers can move their crops uphill, where it’s cooler. They can also switch to more resistant varieties of coffee plants. The problem is all these solutions cost money that many smallholder farmers don’t have anymore. It started in the 1980s when the coffee agreement fell apart along with the price minimum. Since then, more countries, especially some in Asia, have increasingly flooded the market with cheap coffee. It sparked a crisis around 2009 when extreme weather and coffee rust decimated Colombia’s crop. Production fell to its lowest levels in decades. In 2013, thousands of farmers went on strike and demanded that the government provide more financial support and establish a reasonable price minimum. The government increased subsidies to coffee growers but without an ICA, a return to a price minimum was no longer possible. So coffee prices continued to fluctuate. Today it’s below what many farmers need to break even. That’s why it’s so hard for these farmers to adapt to climate change. It’s forced many farmers in the Zona Cafetera to replace coffee with other crops. And it’s not just a problem in Colombia. 80% of the world’s coffee is grown by 25 million smallholder farmers. Many are living in poverty. From Central America to Africa, to Asia, climate change is making it harder for them to grow coffee.
Unless the price of coffee rises again and farmers have the financial means to cope with climate change, small farms everywhere will continue to be at risk of losing their livelihoods. And in the Zona Cafetera, that could spell the end of an entire culture built around coffee.