Climate Change is Transforming Farming, Making Your Morning Coffee More Expensive

Climate change is having a fundamental impact on coffee farming. Photo: Tim Mossholder
Climate change is having a fundamental impact on coffee farming. Photo: Tim Mossholder

By Michiko Katagami

Coffee growers, and other farmers in Asia and around the world, need to make farming practices climate-smart and environmentally sustainable in order to maintain food supply and rural income.

Have you noticed the price of coffee increasing this year? You may not feel the pinch yet as many large coffee suppliers are protected with forward contracts that hedge price risks. But there is a long-term trend toward rising coffee prices, partly because of climate change.

According to the International Coffee Organization, international arabica coffee prices have risen over the past consecutive ten months, registering a 51% increase in August 2021 compared to the start of this year’s coffee season. Climate-adverse conditions in major producing countries are to blame for the rising trend, coupled with increasing freight costs and trade disruptions in Asia caused by the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.

Coffee is grown by more than 25 million farmers in the world, most of whom are smallholders. It is an important industry that generates $100 billion a year, and a key source of export revenue for many countries. Arabica, the aromatic coffee variety that accounts for 70% of the global coffee trade, grows well only within a narrow band of temperatures, and its suitable growing area is moving up the mountain slopes with climate change. 

Farmers in Columbia have already noticed changes in the flowering and fruiting cycles of the coffee plants and damage by pests and crop disease. Scientists warn that climate change will reduce the yield of arabica, and halve the world’s areas suitable for growing coffee. Brazil and Viet Nam, the two largest coffee producers, will experience severe losses.

Coffee is not the only affected crop. Climate change will harshly hit many food crops in Asia. Numerous estimations have warned that staple grains including rice, wheat and corn as well as cash field crops such as sugar cane and cotton are expected to reduce crop yields by 20%-40 % as a crop suitability map is shifting up north.

In addition, unpredictable precipitation patterns, more frequent droughts and floods, and more pests and disease, are expected to further damage the productivity of the existing cropping systems. In Viet Nam, such climate change risks are substantial.

With sea level rise of a meter, rice cultivation in the Mekong Delta may lose up to 40% of the total rice yield. Rising sea levels will inundate most of the Mekong and Red River deltas by 2070, adversely impacting aquaculture. Inundated ponds and lakes could suffer from a complete loss of stock, and climate change will also reduce the variety of aquatic resources and degrade soil quality.

To best adopt to and even benefit from such expected impacts, numerous scientific studies have identified specific measures for farmers in various landscapes. The basic approach of such adaptation measures is to transform farming practices into climate-smart and environmentally sustainable ones to maintain food supply capacity and rural income despite increasing climate risks.

Climate change will harshly hit many food crops in Asia.

What is appalling is the scale and nature of the crop diversification required to adopt to the climate change risks. Imagine how hard it may be for farmers in Columbia to migrate and move coffee plantation up to higher altitudes within forests, or move onto different cropping and non-farm works to deal with higher temperatures.

How about switching from traditional rice farming to shrimp–rice, shrimp–tilapia or shrimp–mangrove forest farming systems to adopt to severe saltwater intrusion in the Mekong Delta? In Mongolia, herders are asked to practice sustainable grazing rangeland management as collective actions with fellow pasture user group members and reduce the numbers of animals by switching to higher value livestock production in order to survive more frequent droughts in summer and harsh winter storms. These are not marginal adjustments in crop selection or infrastructure designs to withstand expected extreme weathers. Rather, these are system transformations that involve entire value chains and industry players.

Obviously, we need to systemically consider climate resilience building for every aspect of the food value chain. We need to establish incentive mechanisms to encourage millions of farmers to adopt drastic measures to build climate resilience.  This food system transformation also generates opportunities for us to encourage carbon removal and switch to low-carbon technologies, while increasing food production.

This so-called “climate smart agriculture” approach appears to offer another great opportunity: to address gender inequality in accessing productive resources, business opportunities and skillset development. The transformed climate-resilient food system should include women at every stage of the process.

To successfully facilitate such farming system transformation and upscale climate smart agriculture investments, governments can play a major role. First, agricultural policies and subsidies can be revisited and reformed to encourage resource use and transaction efficiency in the food system. While many governments heavily subsidize staple grain crops and some industrial crops, their support for diversification into more resource-efficient, climate resilient and higher value farming systems remains limited.

Second, successful diversification into new farming practices needs to be supported on multiple fronts including market access, financing to support the transition, logistics and food distribution infrastructure, and institutional capacity building, so that farmers and food value chain players can make business out of the transformed food system.

Above all, scientific research is indispensable to understand climate change risks, identify countermeasures to address them, and develop investment recommendations to ensure sustainable, climate-resilient, low carbon and inclusive food systems for specific landscapes, institutions, social groups, or countries. We should continue to support good scientific research and be guided by it in best adopting to uncertain future.