Climate change means a shrinking “comfort zone” for the world’s coffee crops – and the smallholders that grow them.
Like the mysterious magic skin in the 19th century novel by French author Balzac, the area suitable for growing Arabica coffee in Mesoamerica is shrinking away as temperatures rise and rainfall patterns change, leaving smallholder coffee producers vulnerable and in need to adapt swiftly.
Every year, we drink some 400 billion cups of coffee around the world1, making this the most widely traded agricultural commodity of the tropics. Coffee fuels our daily lives and that of the world’s 25 million coffee producers, most of whom are smallholder farmers directly dependent on coffee for their livelihoods.
Coffee trees are fussy and will produce their best beans at high altitudes in a tropical climate where the temperatures are stable and the soil is rich. Such conditions are typically found along the Equatorial zone.
The problem is that, in many tropical areas of Mesoamerica, coffee will no longer be in its “comfort zone,” as temperatures and rainfall are altered. Indeed, both models and farmers confirm that climate changes will decrease the area suitable for coffee and effectively displace its production up to higher altitudes and cooler climates. In Central America as a whole, the optimal coffee-growing elevation will shift from 1,200 meters above sea level today to 1,600 meters by 2050.
According to a recent study by CIAT in El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Nicaragua, this will affect a number of vulnerable coffee growing families, who currently lack the capacity to adapt to new conditions. The study proposes a framework for assessing the vulnerability of those small producers to climate change and developing tailored adaptation strategies.
Assessing coffee farmers’ vulnerability to climate change
Across Mexico and Central America, over 4 million people depend directly on coffee production for their livelihoods, and coffee production, purchasing, and processing employ an estimated 8.5 million in the region. Employment and income generation from coffee is also particularly significant for many indigenous people in Mexico and Guatemala.
CIAT’s study builds on the IPCC’s definition of vulnerability of small coffee producers to climate change, which looks at the combination of three factors: exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity.
“High vulnerability of small coffee producers resulted from high exposure to climate change, combined with high sensitivity mainly due to excessive variability of productivity, and low adaptive capacity mainly due to inadequate post-harvest infrastructure,” says Maria Baca, a scientist with CIAT’s Decision and Policy Analysis (DAPA) Research Area in Managua, Nicaragua.
“Coffee is the principal source of income for almost two-thirds of the families that participated in the study. They depend on it for food, health, and the education of their children,” Baca explains. “The variation of coffee productivity levels leads to frequent reductions in income and has dire consequences.”
Other factors contribute to increase the sensitivity of small coffee producers to climate change, including the out-migration of the workforce and lack of conservation practices, in particular for water and forests.
Poor access to credit, low levels of social organization, limited knowledge of coffee sector policies, and environmental and land use laws as well as the absence of alternative technologies (such as machines for pulping coffee, drying infrastructure, solar dryers, drip irrigation and water harvesting) are other factors that limit farmers’ capacity to adapt.
Developing tailored adaptation solutions
Families identified as general strategies for adaptation to climate change the development or improvement of technologies such as drip irrigation in areas with high risk of drought, shade management, soil fertility management, pest and diseases control, conservation of soil and groundwater, and adoption of new crops to adapt to future conditions.
Access to finance – including microloans and formal credit – is critical to help households strategically invest in coffee varieties, complementary crops, and livelihood enhancements that effectively reduce risk and improve social welfare.
While the role of the state remains important for planned adaptation and sustainable development, social organizations like civil society groups, cooperatives, and small-business organizations are an important element of the solution and should be supported. They not only enable rural households to access the resources and knowledge necessary for adaptation, they also empower communities to shape the direction of the coffee sector to meet their diverse development needs.
“Each family is different regarding tenancy, location, culture, knowledge, experiences, among others. Therefore, strategies have to be developed considering the household level, but also the local and regional levels, with policies focusing on groups of families with similar characteristics,” concludes Baca.
Read the full paper published in PlosONE by Baca et al.: An Integrated Framework for Assessing Vulnerability to Climate Change and Developing Adaptation Strategies for Coffee Growing Families in Mesoamerica
Blog post by Stephanie Neno. Stephanie is the Public Awareness Coordinator at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia.
An abbreviated version of this post was originally published on the CIAT News blog on 5 March 2014.