Another day, another apocalyptic story in the Guardian…
Coffee catastrophe beckons as climate change threatens arabica plant
Study warns that rising temperatures pose serious threat to global coffee market, potentially affecting livelihoods of small farmers and pushing up prices
Oh no! Not Coffee! HOWWOULDWEGETANYTHIGNDONEWITHOUTCOFEE?!
Coffee, as we all now know, is grown by poor people. And, as we all know, climate change is worse for the poor. Never mind that environmentalists — who claim to care for the poor — hate coffee shops (unless they’re in Amsterdam), and hate global trade and hate the vehicles that global trade depends on, and hate even more the fuels that make advanced agriculture and global shipping possible…
Cultivation of the arabica coffee plant, staple of daily caffeine fixes and economic lifeline for millions of small farmers, is under threat from climate change as rising temperatures and new rainfall patterns limit the areas where it can be grown, researchers have warned.
This is surely a disaster.
With global temperatures forecast to increase by 2C-2.5C over the next few decades, a report predicts that some of the major coffee producing countries will suffer serious losses, reducing supplies and driving up prices.
2.5 degrees over the next few decades? Really? Over the course of my coffee-drinking career — i.e. my adult life — the globe has warmed by approximately no degrees centigrade. But let’s not worry about that right now. What exactly is the claim?
The joint study, published by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) under the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), models the global suitability of arabica cultivation to see how production will be affected in 2050.
It predicts that Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia and Colombia – which between them produce 65% of the global market share of arabica – will find themselves experiencing severe losses unless steps are taken to change the genetics of the crops as well as the manner and areas in which it is grown.
Well, we can all agree that adaptation is a Good Thing, and is likely a good way of responding to climate change. But there’s adaptation and there’s adaptation. Most adaptation is a decision that can be taken at the level of the farm. The implication of the study, however, is that coffee growers will have to move ever upwards to cope with the changing climate, demanding the intervention of national and global carbon bureaucracies.
But is this true? What’s the evidence for it?
It doesn’t exist in the statistics relating to the production of coffee provided by the UN. Here is a chart showing coffee production in the countries named by the Guardian in the passage above, and for the world total.
World coffee production has doubled since 1980. Coffee production has tripled in Brazil since 1995, and output is less volatile. Vietnam has emerged as a coffee superpower in just two decades. Indonesia’s coffee production has shown slow, but steady and sure growth. This picture is hard to marry with the story that coffee production is getting harder. The only loser here is Columbia, whose output seemed to peak in the early 1990s. For this we turn to Wikipedia for the standard explanation…
Regional climate change associated with global warming has caused Colombian coffee production to decline since 2006 from 12 million 132-pound bags, the standard measure, to 9 million bags in 2010. Average temperatures have risen 1 degree Celsius between 1980 to 2010, with average precipitation increasing 25 percent in the last few years, disrupting the specific climatic requirements of the Coffea arabica bean.
Well that’s one explanation for Colombia’s coffee production decline. But there are at least two others… Fair trade organisation, Equal Exchange offer this account:
The global coffee [price] crisis hit Colombia’s small producers hard. Twenty-three percent of producers were not meeting production costs in the nineteen nineties. The affect on producer families varied by region, but overall the crisis sent people further into poverty and debt. Malnutrition among small children in farm families went up significantly, while coffee production across the country fell 44% as farmers could no longer afford to harvest and process their crops. Many farmers were forced to migrate for work in urban areas leading to increased unemployment and more poverty.
The article is not without its own tendency to sustainabollocks. And this journal article offers a third perspective, but which it also attempts to link to climate change…
Coffee rust is a leaf disease caused by the fungus, Hemileia vastatrix. Coffee rust epidemics, with intensities higher than previously observed, have affected a number of countries including: Colombia, from 2008 to 2011; Central America and Mexico, in 2012–13; and Peru and Ecuador in 2013. There are many contributing factors to the onset of these epidemics e.g. the state of the economy, crop management decisions and the prevailing weather, and many resulting impacts e.g. on production, on farmers’ and labourers’ income and livelihood, and on food security. Production has been considerably reduced in Colombia (by 31 % on average during the epidemic years compared with 2007) and Central America (by 16 % in 2013 compared with 2011–12 and by 10 % in 2013–14 compared with 2012–13). These reductions have had direct impacts on the livelihoods of thousands of smallholders and harvesters. For these populations, particularly in Central America, coffee is often the only source of income used to buy food and supplies for the cultivation of basic grains. As a result, the coffee rust epidemic has had indirect impacts on food security. The main drivers of these epidemics are economic and meteorological. All the intense epidemics experienced during the last 37 years in Central America and Colombia were concurrent with low coffee profitability periods due to coffee price declines, as was the case in the 2012–13 Central American epidemic, or due to increases in input costs, as in the 2008–11 Colombian epidemics. Low profitability led to suboptimal coffee management, which resulted in increased plant vulnerability to pests and diseases. A common factor in the recent Colombian and Central American epidemics was a reduction in the diurnal thermal amplitude, with higher minimum/lower maximum temperatures (+0.1 °C/-0.5 °C on average during 2008–2011 compared to a low coffee rust incidence period, 1991–1994, in Chinchiná, Colombia; +0.9 °C/-1.2 °C on average in 2012 compared with prevailing climate, in 1224 farms from Guatemala). This likely decreased the latency period of the disease. These epidemics should be considered as a warning for the future, as they were enhanced by weather conditions consistent with climate change. Appropriate actions need to be taken in the near future to address this issue including: the development and establishment of resistant coffee cultivars; the creation of early warning systems; the design of crop management systems adapted to climate change and to pest and disease threats; and socio-economic solutions such as training and organisational strengthening.
But the link between climate change — whether it be natural or anthropogenic — and reduced coffee bean production is speculation. The research only suggests it as a ‘likely’ part-cause of an epidemic, given relatively modest changes in temperature extremes, which itself had a much more profound effect on production, which was again much more likely an economic consequence — low price and poverty. Let us not forget that greens are hostile to interventions which could have prevented the disease — pesticides — and campaign to abolish their use, and have persuaded Fair Trade organisations to make ‘sustainability’ a condition of trade. In other words, it is not implausible that the demands of ‘sustainability’ could have caused the very problem which its advocates now attribute to climate change.
A broader picture of climate change’s effect on coffee production can be gained by looking at each country’s yield.
Again, we can see that the story of environmental decline doesn’t fit with the statistics. We can see no signal corresponding to climate change in any country except Colombia, which we have an explanation for. Moreover, in the case of Vietnam, where we can see a dramatic shift in yield between the late 1990s and mid 2000s, which the environmentalist might be tempted to explain as the consequence of climate change. But he would be wrong. The producer price of coffee fell between 1997 and 2004, before rising again. As this graph of Colombian production statistics shows. (The data for producer prices in Vietnam do not exist over this time range).
Economics accounts for changes in production yield much better than climate. When the price is low, the yield is low.
The Guardian article continues, quoting one of the study’s authors…
“If you look at the countries that will lose out most, they’re countries like El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras, which have steep hills and volcanoes,” he said. “As you move up, there’s less and less area. But if you look at some South American or east African countries, you have plateaus and a lot of areas at higher altitudes, so they will lose much less.”
So do these countries show any sign of being vulnerable to climate change yet? Here are the production and yield stats for those countries.
We can see coffee production increase in Honduras and Nicaragua, and yield increase in Honduras, with wobbly increase for yield in Nicaragua. The case of El Salvador is very different. Coffee production fell, and has not recovered since 1979, and its yield has fallen since 1969. Is this the result of climate change?
No. In the cases of both Nicaragua and El Salvador, conflict much better explains changes in production statistics than climate change. In Nicaragua, civil war affects production through the 1980s, which was amplified by US sanctions, and the reduction in yield from the late 1990s through the mid 200s is explained by the lower prices that affected Vietnam. Civil war affected El Salvador through the 1980s, also, from which the El Salvadorian economy has not recovered .
The report‘s abstract reads as follows…
Regional studies have shown that climate change will affect climatic suitability for Arabica coffee (Coffea arabica) within current regions of production. Increases in temperature and changes in precipitation patterns will decrease yield, reduce quality and increase pest and disease pressure. This is the first global study on the impact of climate change on suitability to grow Arabica coffee. We modeled the global distribution of Arabica coffee under changes in climatic suitability by 2050s as projected by 21 global circulation models. The results suggest decreased areas suitable for Arabica coffee in Mesoamerica at lower altitudes. In South America close to the equator higher elevations could benefit, but higher latitudes lose suitability. Coffee regions in Ethiopia and Kenya are projected to become more suitable but those in India and Vietnam to become less suitable. Globally, we predict decreases in climatic suitability at lower altitudes and high latitudes, which may shift production among the major regions that produce Arabica coffee.
This seems to me to reproduce the same old trick, of plugging in worst-case scenario projections into modelled assumptions of sensitivity of this-or-that to climate, to reveal, hey-presto, a sound prediction of what life will be like a few decades hence. Yet we can see that climate has had very little impact on agricultural production, if any negative impact at all. And we can see that economics plays a much bigger role in agricultural production than any environmental effect.
These kind of studies claim to want to protect the interests of producers. Yet their futures don’t seem to be at all dependent on the interventions of climate bureaucracies, if there is any lesson to be had from the past. The weather is simply the weather, whereas price volatility and conflict are the real enemies of farmers in poorer economies. Wealth allows for the proper management of crops, as well as adaptation to any kind of weather. The study does not appear to have attempted to isolate climate and its Nth-order effects from economic effects and conflict in its estimation of coffee-production’s sensitivity to climate. Why not?
This doesn’t exclude the possibility, of course, that dramatic shifts in climate could create problems for coffee producers. Of course it could. Yet even extreme weather, such as that which caused widespread damage in coffee-producing economies in the late 1990s as a result of El Nino don’t seem to have affected coffee production. In fact, the price of coffee fell following the 1997-8 El Nino, no doubt amplifying the consequences for recovery.
To link agricultural production and climate change in this way — as seems to be the greens’ want — is to make instrumental use of the plight of producers in poorer economies. It does not aim to intervene in any way that would improve their condition. The purpose is to inflate an already engorged bureaucracy and add to its powers. A genuine discussion about how to improve the conditions of producers in poorer economies would be about how best to allow a situation in which fewer farmers produced more goods, leaving more people to produce the machines and chemicals those wealthier farmers would use in their work, the other services they would use in their lives, and the books, films and music they would use in their leisure time.
But bloated, ambitious green bureaucracies and their academic organs like the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, which produced this report don’t want such lifestyles for poorer producers.
No single research institution working alone can address the critically important issues of global climate change, agriculture and food security. The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) will address the increasing challenge of global warming and declining food security on agricultural practices, policies and measures through a strategic collaboration between CGIAR and Future Earth.
Food security is not an ‘increasing challenge’. It is a challenge which has reduced dramatically over just the timespan of anthropogenic global warming. More people have more access to better quality food than ever before. Only in the minds of bureaucrats and climate impact models is the world a worse place than it ever has been. The reasons for this are obvious.