With rising global temperatures expected to halve the land suitable for coffee production, a new report calls on governments to help small coffee farmers build resilience.
Researchers may be finding ways to help coffee production adapt, but smallhold farmers will still face the worst outcomes from climate change, Coffeeland author Augustine Sedgewick told The Energy Mix. And whatever possibilities arise for these small farmers will surely be “commandeered, and not to say colonized, by the largest corporations that exert power in the global marketplace for coffee.”
“History suggests that what’s always happened and will continue to happen,” said Sedgewick, a history and American studies professor at the City University of New York.
The petulant coffee bean is acutely sensitive to changes in temperature and precipitation, and as climate change pushes weather patterns beyond coffee’s comfort zone, researchers from Christian Aid say the amount of land suitable for growing it will shrink 54.4% by 2050 worldwide—even if political leaders manage to limit warming to 1.5° to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
Researchers are looking into sturdier coffee strains, but among the 120 wild varieties that exist only two—Arabica and Robusta—taste good enough to be widely consumed. Arabica is yummier but also more vulnerable, while Robusta, as its name implies, can better withstand worsening conditions but is noted to have harsher flavours. There has been renewed interest in some other tolerable varieties like Liberica grown in Uganda, and Stenophylla rediscovered in Sierra Leone. Cultivators in Vietnam’ are also exploring techniques to improve Robusta’s quality and capitalize on its greater resilience.
But “the sensitivity of coffee to weather conditions, more notable in Arabica than Robusta, means that as temperatures rise and droughts and excessive precipitation become more common, some regions will no longer have growing conditions that make coffee farming a viable livelihood,” says [pdf] Christian Aid.
Poor Farming Conditions
Even without the impacts of climate change, many coffee workers and smallholders face harsh work conditions and earn unlivable wages, leaving them particularly vulnerable to price fluctuations in the global coffee market. Even if stronger and higher-yield solutions become feasible, they may not be available to the small farmers who need them most.
One study of small-scale coffee farmers in Chiapas, Mexico, found that “high levels of poverty, coffee monoculture, food insecurity, and instability in sources of employment and income combine to limit the flexibility and stability of the population’s adaptive capacity.”
The impacts of climate change “are placing the region’s small farmers in a very vulnerable situation from which it may be difficult to escape without the implementation of social reform predicated on greater justice and social equality, which will require political will,” the researchers added.
That has Christian Aid calling on leaders of wealthy countries—where coffee is widely consumed—to deliver support for smallholder coffee farmers. Many of the charity’s recommendations rely on established initiatives that wealthy countries have been slow to enact, like boosting climate finance to help governments support farmers, following through on promises to pay for loss and damage for climate change impacts, and cancelling debt to help poorer countries improve their financial capacity to respond to climate change.
Sedgewick says part of the reason people in wealthy countries are slow to deliver support to smallholder coffee producers—and poorer, climate vulnerable countries generally—is the lack of an effective language for evaluating the interconnections and interdependencies of our global economy.
Compared to coffee production and consumption, the framework for discussing climate change is advanced, Sedgewick says, because metrics like the carbon footprint exist to describe the environmental impacts of our actions.
When it comes to how our actions affect people at the other end of a supply chain, “there’s really no way of accounting for your dependence on someone else’s work and life in the same way,” he added. “We don’t think of ourselves as using someone else’s energy or where their energy comes from.”
But by consuming resources like coffee, which are produced by the labour of others, people do use the energy of others. That means even the carbon footprint approach can come up short by quantifying impacts on a single measurement of carbon emissions, which then isolates the consumer from the worker who produced it.
This in turn influences how we address the problems of supplying an item by “privileging” the item itself within the solution, rather than the “social world” in which it is produced.
This applies to other resources as well, including the critical minerals necessary for curbing emissions. Sedgewick points to cobalt, an essential element for many clean energy technologies “but which is nevertheless an environmental and social disaster.” Since actions to address climate change have focused on solving the problem of carbon from energy use, some measures to reduce carbon carry other environmental and social consequences.
The outcome Sedgewick describes aligns with the Chiapas study, which found that ongoing efforts to solve the problems of coffee production in the context of climate change may not help smallholder farmers gain better work conditions or greater food security, as long as other social problems limit their access to resources.
“The biggest and richest coffee corporations and retailers will be the ones that can keep up with the disruptions of climate change,” he said, “rather than the small producers and retailers that will suffer the most historically,” he said.
“That’s a complicated reality because one wants to keep drinking coffee and, in general, people don’t want to do things that are bad,” he added. “And yet, because of the way the world economy works, we’re all kind of recruited and drafted into these systems where we help to perpetuate things at a distance that we would never tolerate” if they were visible to us.