How We Can Help Specialty Coffee Survive Climate Change

By the year 2050 demand for Specialty coffee will double, but only half the land capable of growing excellent coffee will remain. This is according to World Coffee Research, WCR, a leading non-profit research organization spearheading ingenuity in the Specialty coffee industry. Climate change, plant diseases and pests continue to test the industry’s abilities to adapt. Specialty coffee’s future seems uncertain, yet this is the new reality. ‘Prospering in the New Reality’ was the focus of this year’s Let’s Talk Coffee conference. Hosted by Portland based importer Sustainable Harvest, the conference brought coffee professionals from all over the world to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Lindsay Bolger, who is a Board Member of WCR, spoke about some of the organization’s work to combat these challenges the industry faces.

Seeing Roya in-person at Finca El Valle in Atingua, Guatemala

Seeing Roya in-person at Finca El Valle in Atingua, Guatemala

In coffee there is a serious lack of investment in agronomic advances in relation to other agricultural products. This can be partly attributed to the majority of the world’s coffee being produced in economically disadvantaged countries. As a result, coffee varieties have minimal genetic variability and are extremely susceptible to disease caused by shifting weather patterns. In fact, Arabica species have a genetic diversity of a meager 2%, compared to 10%-20% in rice and corn. Even more surprising is there are only 36 registered coffee varieties, in comparison to almost 3,000 registered varieties of watermelon, which is an industry with a fraction of the annual revenue of coffee (UPOV, 2016). One of the differences is that watermelons are cultivated in countries such as China and the United States that have the resources to fund research. There is a high return on investment in agricultural research; it is clear that funding research organizations like WCR is critical to the future of Specialty coffee.

Climate change is accelerating while Roya, an airborne fungus that devastates yields, is spreading. Coffee is one of the most valuable commodities exported by developing countries, there are millions of struggling producers who rely on coffee cultivation as their primary source of income (Talbot 2004, 50). WCR is one of the first organizations focused solely on the research and development of coffee, and one of their top priorities is supporting producers. Recently, they published a catalog of today’s known Arabica varieties with detailed information about the conditions they thrive in. In addition, they are launching a verification program to certify that seeds purchased by producers are genetically pure, disease-free and adhere to variety standards. All of this however, is only the beginning. Considering the effects of climate change, WCR is also forecasting where coffee will be able to be cultivated thirty years from now and mapping out possible alternative growing sites. Access to resources such as these will help provide producers with tools to combat these challenges, giving them the confidence to keep growing coffee and not switch to other cash crops. Although a good start, much work still remains.

Forecasting WCR is doing to determine where coffee can be cultivated in the future. Photo Credit: World Coffee Research

Forecasting WCR is doing to determine where coffee can be cultivated in the future. Photo Credit: World Coffee Research

The Specialty coffee community has been reluctant to sacrifice the quality or the integrity of coffee’s gene pool. While making WCR’s task more difficult, these are fundamental principles of the organization and, as a result hybridization is being utilized to develop new cultivars rather than modifying genetics. They have identified 100 of the most genetically diverse Arabica varieties, called the Core Collection, and determined how different each type is from one another. Genetic variability is broadened and quality upheld by selecting high scoring, low resistance varieties and pairing them with genetically distant mates from the Core Collection. Using this approach there is concern quality may suffer, but sensory trials are being conducted to understand the correlation between disease resistance and cup quality to ensure it can work. Cultivars such as Centroamerica, a hybrid of Sudan Rume and Sarchimor, are already being tested with encouraging results. Its yields are up to double that of traditional varieties with promising quality potential. New cultivars such as this one could be available to producers in as little as five years.

Centroamerica hybrid cultvar currently being tested in Central America by WCR. Photo credit: WCR

Centroamerica hybrid cultvar currently being tested in Central America by WCR. Photo credit: WCR

The formation of a global organization with access to funding has made these projects possible, Equator is proud to contribute to WCR through a premium added to the price of the coffees we purchase. While their work shows promise, the challenges facing the industry are beyond WCR’s ability to solve alone and there must be more investment. It is our hope that there will be more research institutions dedicated to coffee established in the coming years. WCR is committed to helping producers gain access to higher yielding, more resistant varieties while maintaining high quality. This commitment will help ensure farmers receive sustainable prices and that consumers continue to have access to great tasting coffee. All of this may be in vain however, if the causes of climate change are not combatted more aggressively. Although human innovation remains a key player in the acceleration of climate change, it will undoubtedly play a role in its reversal as well. Of course this is not a problem unique to coffee, the world as a whole is affected and it will take a global effort to fix. Until that happens, the future of specialty coffee hangs in the balance.

Best,
Nate Breckenridge
Associate Green Coffee Buyer
Equator Coffees & Teas

Works Cited

Bolger, Lindsey. “Addressing Climate Change Through Flavor: Sensory and Varieties.” Let’s Talk Coffee, Sustainable Harvest, 14 Oct. 2016, Marriott Puerto Vallarta, Jal., Mexico. Speech.

World Coffee Research. worldcoffeeresearch.org. Accessed 11 Nov. 2016.

UPOV – International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants. upov.int. Accessed 11 Nov. 2016.

Talbot, John. Grounds for Agreement: The Political Economy of the Coffee Commodity Chain. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004.