06 November 2018 | pacts insight | Views:

Climate Change is Real: wake up and smell the coffee (while you can)

It’s 6am, sometime in the not-so-distant future. You swipe blindly at your alarm-blaring phone and stumble out of bed. Shower, dress and then, finally, it’s time for that all-important moment: your first coffee of the day.

But you can’t afford coffee! You might as well start your day with a saffron-infused, truffle-dusted bowl of caviar. The price of your favourite drink has reached those astronomical heights - and, in fact, even the utmost deck of the upper sets won’t be able to get their hands on the good stuff soon.

Because it won’t exist.

The climate is already changing

Whether we like it or not, it’s a truth that’s no longer just inconvenient - it’s unavoidable. With the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning the world that there’s a 12-year deadline to keep global warming at safe(r) levels, the risk to hundreds of millions of people is very real. The goal is no more than a 1.5°C rise in the next decade, as even half a degree more would make insects twice as likely to “lose half their habitat” - a fearful prospect for the pollination of all plants.

Globally, temperatures have risen by 1°C since 1850 and new data shows an additional increase of 4.8°C is likely to happen by 2100. And that comes with a whole host of disastrous consequences.

Heat the world: what will happen to the environment?

But why is climate change so bad anyway? Surely UK dwellers should be all for mediterranean summers without having to leave Hampshire. But just think back to the heatwave-heavy summer just gone, with our green and pleasant parks transformed to barren swathes of wasteland. Dead grass, scorched earth… not an ideal picnic environment.

Now imagine that but much, much worse.

Studies suggest that half of all farmland used to grow speciality coffee will be gone by 2050, and in Latin America there could be only 12% of this sort of land left. And there’s a lot of reasons why that is, including the fact that a higher temperature is an excellent breeding ground for pests and crop disease - with between 59-75% of farmers noticing an increase in one or the other. And in Colombia, a particular fungus has been observed at altitudes it didn’t use to be able to thrive in due to temperature increase.

It’s not just the increased likelihood of coffee plants being ransacked by mould and mites - the general temperature increase, which arabica crops are incredibly sensitive to, causes a reduction in quality.

All this is compounded by the lessening distinction between wet and dry seasons. Unlike our spring, summer, autumn and winter, Central and South America and Africa just have two seasons - wet and dry. It’s this change from wet, to dry, to wet again which triggers trees to flower and grow cherries. Now there’s a muddying of seasons, disrupting the cycle of coffee trees and causing them to flower too frequently which means low quality beans are produced.

The cost to lives: how are farmers impacted?

In Mexico and Central America alone, the coffee industry has 4 million people dependent on it for their livelihood. So if climate change continues as is, a lot of lives are at risk.

The problems people are beginning to face are multiple, and many-layered. Farmers are increasingly unable to predict harvest times, already finding of the rainy season that “one year it’s too short, one year it’s too long”. That means they can’t rely on the usual cues for when to plant, pick and dry out their crops.

It also means the harvest becomes long and drawn out, cherries ripening at wildly different rates. Farmers can’t afford to hire pickers for the whole duration of the harvest, and pickers earn less - due to the sparseness of ripe cherries, and the extra care needed to pick them. The cherries themselves don’t even get a high price, as the quality is lowered by frequent flowering.

With a disrupted harvest cycle, and pests and disease thriving in previously inhospitable environments, farmers are going to have to adapt. Quickly. Some might be forced to move farm and family to higher altitude areas, or to grow more durable crops - though many will be able to do neither. The time and financial pressures they’re facing right now will prevent them from making proactive changes, and they the strain for some will just be too much.

With drought being “associated with a deep and disturbing sense of failure, loss, powerlessness, heightened anxiety, stress, depression, and an increased suicide rate among farmers”, there are a whole lot of physical and mental battles for farmers to face in the coming years.

It’s been a long time coming - is change going to come?

Thankfully, climate change has not gone unnoticed. The UN has issues its warnings, governments in countries like Brazil are making global warming projections - even major coffee companies are feeling the fear.

Businesses like Starbucks and Keurig are acting now. With the former using a farm as a “field laboratory” to understand what problems the coffee industry is likely to encounter, and how to mitigate these, and the latter putting money behind an initiative to help coffee farmers learn to adapt to drought conditions, it is (almost ironically) a relief that such major commodity coffee companies are taking the threat level seriously.

Part of the solution, as Keurig have noticed, is to find ways to cope with climate change - not necessarily to stop it from actually happening. Large numbers of farmers are planning for drought by getting water tanks, and planting trees on their land to tackle soil erosion, and to shade their crops during heatwaves.

Pact Coffee is also trying to help plan for the future. We work with the San Isidro Group (a group of farms like Buenos Aires, Casa Loma and El Cairo) that have grouped together to buy a large section of rainforest to protect. The Planalto farm, another major partner of Pact, is also committed to protecting large areas of forest - all helping to slow the rate of global warming.

Though, as many have realised, some of the consequences of climate change are irreversible. For that reason, we’re encouraging the farmers we work with to make use of parabolic dryers. Where a never-ending wet season could ruin crops ready for processing, these units allow farmers to let their green dry consistently. It takes a lot of training, persistence and some investment (even if in the form of just a thermometer!), but changes like this will help mitigate the issues farmers face.

Will I still be able to get my fix?

That’s the big question, isn’t it. Of course, most people do care about the wellbeing of farmers. They do worry about the state of the environment, and our rapidly warming world. But it’s probably not at the forefront of everyone’s mind when it’s a dreary Monday morning and a hot cup of coffee is waiting to be drunk.

Between 2008-2013, coffee production in Colombia fell by 33% thanks to a particularly disastrous series of storms. That’s one worry - that we just won’t have enough coffee to go around. And what does that mean? The scarcer something is, the more expensive it gets. Coffee could join the ranks of truffles, saffron and caviar in becoming a “high-priced luxury”.

For most of us, that’s a nightmare scenario. Sure, there may be a few of you sitting pretty - the Scrooge McDucks of… real life, slightly thrilled at the idea of being the only to have bags of coffee in your (possibly gilded) cupboards. Not so fast, though! There’s a real possibility that coffee will just end up as a “sub-par product”.

Arabica coffee is so sensitive to temperature change, affected by minor fluctuations and in need of constant monitoring when it comes to speciality grade crops, that global warming could be the end of arabica as we know it. And while the robusta coffee holds a higher hope of survival (as it is, funnily, more robust), it makes up only a quarter of coffee production. Because it just isn’t as tasty.

The verdict:

Extortionately priced coffee? Bad coffee? No coffee? Whatever the future holds, it isn’t pretty - be you caffeine addict, farmer or coffee company.

Climate change might be a problem we can’t solve. But we can at least take steps now to lessen its effect, and find ways the mitigate the disasters it could cause. And that’s all of our responsibility.


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