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| by Sam Knowlton April 20, 2022
Photo from the Daily Coffee News by Nick Brown.
Coffee production is currently under a serious threat that could drastically change the coffee we drink every day and potentially leave our cups dry.
Coffee trees cover around 11 million hectares of land across the tropics. Farmers hand-pick ripe emerald coffee cherries and meticulously process them until the seed is ready to be twisted.
Outside of a few large farms in Brazil and elsewhere, the farmers who manage the world's coffee lands do almost all of their work by hand, from planting to harvesting.
These farmers survive on thin margins and often sell coffee for less than its production price. However, the challenge of producing coffee does not stop there.
Of the 124 known species of coffee , 99% of the coffee produced and consumed today comes from just two species: Arabica and Robusta . The genetic diversity of coffee is remarkably low for a crop of such importance. Gene diversity within a plant population increases the possibility of adaptation to climate change and disease pressure. Coffee's limited genetic diversity makes the crop particularly susceptible to climate change and disease.
Coffee grows in a narrow range from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn , often referred to as the " coffee belt " or the "bean belt". Within this geographic climate zone, coffee trees thrive within specific microclimates consisting of ideal altitude, rainfall, moderate temperature, and adequate shade.
Coffee trees are uniquely climate sensitive and quickly decline in conditions outside their ideal range. Due to their sensitivity, coffee trees will be heavily affected by a changing climate. Over the next 25 years, its suitable climate is predicted to be halved .
As coffee became more intensively produced over the decades, shade was removed, and heavy use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides became the norm. This has degraded the previously rich ecological capital of these systems and further exacerbated climate change.
While mitigating a changing climate is a massive problem to tackle, restoring microclimates to better plant health is not only possible, it can be achieved relatively quickly. A stable microclimate for coffee – including numerous shade trees and living, functional soil – can help mitigate the effects of a changing climate.
In addition to climate change, there are a number of diseases that regularly pose threats to coffee production. The most pressing today is coffee leaf rust (CLR), a pathogenic fungus that infects coffee leaves, essentially shutting down the plant's ability to photosynthesize, produce nutrients and sustain fruit. Left unchecked, leaf blight can decimate entire farms.
In 2012, rust spread to Latin America and reached pandemic proportions, causing an estimated $1 billion in crop losses and tree damage. With livelihoods and entire economies at stake, governments and organizations quickly deployed fungicides and removed infected trees, saving many farms and mitigating the spread. This event provided a major impetus for the development of rust resistant coffee varieties.
By 2017, Honduras had aggressively adopted rust-resistant varieties. One such variety, Lempira, represented 42% of all coffee trees in the country. Despite these efforts, a rust outbreak hit the country and severely infected the Lempira variety .
Some efforts are underway to breed coffee to increase its resistance to disease, however, coffee breeding is an excruciatingly slow process. Reproduction begins by crossing genetically distinct parents, which is called an F1 hybrid. These hybrids are known for their vigor, but lack stability in their traits. Creating a stable coffee variety can take more than 15 years.
However, there are currently 40 known strains of rust, and probably many more on the way, as fungi have a gift for mutation.
While reproduction may be part of the long-term solution for coffee in the face of a changing climate, there are other immediate and affordable actions that can improve coffee's resilience.
Coffee trees are native to Ethiopia's forests, where they grew and evolved among a diversity of shade trees. As global coffee production became more industrialised, farms removed shade trees, increased coffee tree density and introduced a range of chemical fertilizers, fungicides and herbicides to maintain production.
In short, the coffee industry has destabilized the two pillars of successful coffee production: a diversity of shade trees and healthy soil.
Coffee agroforestry systems blend the diversity and structure of the forest with coffee production. This essentially mimics the natural habitat of coffee trees, but can be intentionally designed to include other fruits, nuts, bees, and even high-value hardwood trees.
Thus, agroforestry systems have the potential to provide additional revenue streams, resilient microclimates that buffer major climatic events, and the innate disease and pest control of a complex ecology.
Healthy soil has a regenerative effect that builds up over time to create more life within a system. This works on a scale of weeks, months and years.
Even the perfect hybrid tree is as healthy and vibrant as the soil in which it grows. Reproduction can and should be part of the solution, but it is by no means a silver bullet. Betting the future of coffee on the success of hybrids is a risk, especially if it further consolidates power rather than responding to realities on the farm.
For coffee to continue as we know it, farmer-led agroforestry systems , built on a foundation of soil and plant health, must become the norm. This can reverse a trend of agricultural land degradation, improve coffee quality, provide farmers with much-needed additional revenue streams, decrease and even eradicate disease pressure, and contribute to climate change mitigation on a local and global scale.
This movement is already underway, but it will require greater awareness for significant change at the global level.
More coffee roasters need to understand this issue so they can buy coffee at farms like Finca San Jeronimo , a regenerative coffee farm in Guatemala; more consumers need to know that their coffee purchases make a difference; and more voices working within this movement, on the ground, need to be heard so that we can change the discourse in the echo chambers of the coffee industry.
Your future coffee mug depends on it.
[Editor's Note: Daily Coffee News does not publish paid content or sponsored content of any kind.
Any opinions or opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by the Daily Coffee News or its management.
Sam KnowltonSam Knowlton is an agronomist and founder of SoilSymbitics. Consultation around the world with leading agri-food companies and farms. Sam specializes in designing regenerative coffee farming systems. Learn more and connect here: www.samknowlton.com