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Arabica coffee: Falling yields and rising prices

Coffee picking in Cauca, southwestern Colombia. From the Two Degrees Up series o
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Mar 22, 2011

A New York Times article this month reports on the dwindling yields and rising prices of Colombian and Central American coffee, due to climate change. The article mentions some startling statistics: Colombian coffee production has fallen by 37% since 2006; prices in futures contracts have increased 85% in the last 8 months, and coffee companies and cafés in the U.S. have been raising prices by 20% to keep up. Climate change will thus affect coffee producers and consumers alike.

As a recent CIAT Policy Brief on Mesoamerican coffee explains, heat lessens the climatic suitability of coffee, especially high-quality, acidic Arabica coffee. It also brings more pests and diseases, such as coffee rust, which destroyed large swaths of last year's coffee crop in Cauca, a major coffee-growing department in Colombia. Meanwhile, more erratic precipitation has significantly impacted coffee, whose production cycle is highly dependent on rainfall patterns. Coffee flowering is triggered by the first rainfalls at the onset of the rainy season, but if precipitation drops off or becomes too heavy, both coffee flowers and fruits may drop from the tree. This stunted fruit growth results in fewer, smaller beans of lower quality, which in turn fetch lower prices at market--that is, if the beans even meet minimum exportation quality standards. Moreover, harvesting often represents the majority of production costs, so when erratic flowering and ripening cycles require additional harvesting cycles, these changes drastically raise costs.

Nicaraguan map showing losses in coffee suitability and opportunities for crop substitution. "Other crops" in the legend refers to the 30 top crops produced in the country, by area harvested, and include palm oil/nut, agave, cotton, rice, and banana. Source: CIAT


The New York Times article also showcases a video of coffee farmers in the department of Cauca, where our own Two Degrees Up (2DU): Colombia photofilm was shot. Both videos agree that, even if international efforts succeed in containing global temperature rises to within two degrees, that temperature increase may still translate to substantial hardship. Without effective adaptation, these lands will, quite literally, become scenes of devastation. However, we disagree with conclusion of the Times video, in which a coffee farmer explains that there are no alternatives to growing coffee. Indeed, as our 2DU video shows, there are other options, and elsewhere in Cauca, producers have switched over from coffee farming to pineapple or cassava production. In a world of changing climates, some farmers will able to use better seeds and management techniques to continue cultivation, but other production systems will have to shift and migrate. The challenge is to enable those farmers to make those often difficult transitions--and therefore to secure food, and caffeine, for world generations to come.