Unless the world embraces Indigenous African Farming methods we can all say goodbye to the morning cup of coffee!
Latin America is a great place to cultivate coffee or at least it used to be in the era of the Juan Valdez commercials. Although the regions of Central and South America are home to five of the world’s top 10 coffee producers, including Brazil, No. 1, and Colombia, both famous for high-quality beans. The global demand for those beans is rising. Asia’s ever-expanding middle class is leading to increased consumption and putting pressure on Latin America farmers to produce more coffee. Now there is even stiffer competition as Ethiopia and Uganda dominate East Africa’s coffee production, together accounting for 62% of Africa's coffee output. Ivory Coast being West Africa's largest producer, and the third largest in sub-Saharan Africa.
Today the coffee industry employs more than 14 million people across Latin America. In recent years, though, climate change, pests and declining coffee prices have created a perfect storm that threatens the welfare of millions of producers and their families. Brazil is by far the largest coffee producing country in Latin America, with an average annual production of more than 50 million 60-kilogram bags. In the 2019 crop year, the country reached an output of nearly 63 million bags, representing over one third of the global coffee production that year. Colombia ranked second in the region, with almost 14 million bags produced.
Those hurting the most are small producers, especially those with less than two hectares of land. The return on their investment is steadily declining, leading them to abandon coffee for other crops or to give up entirely and migrate to cities or even move abroad. Atypical changes in seasonal weather caused by climate change, the presence of diseases like “Roya” coffee rust, consistently lower prices in the international market, and the lack of commercial alliances are the main threats to responsible coffee production. The trend in the coffee industry is clear. And if we don’t act quickly it could become irreversible. Climate change experts agree that global temperatures will continue to rise, gradually increasing between 1.5ºC and 4.5ºC in less than a generation. Scientists also say we can expect longer and more extreme periods of rain and drought, making farming even harder. And big business is listening, having lost billions just this summer because of transportation issues caused by climate change which flooded some regions while causing extreme droughts in others. Although many would like to point at political conflict it was climate change that was the ultimate causal factor of food insecurity in 2022.
To grow properly, coffee crops require specific temperature, light and humidity levels and those needs formerly were best met in Latin America’s so-called coffee belt, a region that includes countries between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, but this is changing quickly. Rising temperatures have reduced areas suitable for growing coffee. It is expected that 50% of Latin America’s coffee growing farmlands will be gone by 2050. Meanwhile, some areas that are not ideal for growing coffee may become more hospitable to the crop. That could happen in Africa, where analysts say the optimum altitude for coffee cultivation will rise from 1,200 meters above sea level to 1,600 meters by mid-century. Coffee is grown along the equator in East Africa where rich, fertile soil and the local microclimate provide the perfect conditions for cultivating coffee. Farmers employ traditional farming methods like intercropping that have regenerative effects on the soil and keep the land healthy. It is the fact that African growers rely on the old ways that keeps their lands fertile even in the face of climate change.
The coffee plant evolved in the forests of Ethiopia long before its discovery as a beverage by Ethiopians in the 9th Century and then traded to Europeans in the 12th century. Today, over 40% of people globally drink coffee regularly and coffee trees cover an estimated 11 million hectares of land throughout Africa and the tropics. Coffee grown worldwide can trace its heritage back centuries to the ancient coffee forests on the Ethiopian plateau. Moorish sailors brought coffee to Venetian merchants who then introduced coffee-drinking to the wealthy in Venice, charging them heavily for the beverage. In this way, coffee was introduced to the mainland of Europe. Ever the earnest profiteers, the Dutch introduced arabica coffee trees to Central and South America in 1718. Twenty years earlier, tiny Holland had imported the first coffee plants to Indonesia. Coffee was finally brought to North America by the British in the mid-17th century. Coffee houses were popular, but it wasn't until the Boston Party in 1773 that America's coffee culture was changed forever: the revolt against King George III generated a mass switch from tea to coffee amongst the colonists.
There are 124 known species of coffee. However, over 99% of the coffee produced and consumed today comes from just two species: arabica and robusta. Due to low genetic diversity, with the exception of Africa, the coffee plant is at risk of complete loss due to disease and climate change. It’s predicted that by 2050, half of the world’s coffee growing areas will not be suitable for cultivating the popular arabica coffee variety due to warmer temperatures. As the birthplace of coffee, Africa is home to many coffee species beyond the Arabica coffee variety. These coffee species can adapt to changing climates and are more disease resistant. Native African coffee offers a genetic diversity that is key to the future of coffee and the luxury of distinct flavors.
During harvesting, African coffee farmers carefully hand-pick only the ripe coffee cherries from the tree and process them until the seed is ready to be roasted. Since the coffee cherries do not ripen uniformly, they return to the same coffee plant, several times within the same season.
In contrast, industrial coffee harvesting, using machinery, strips whole coffee branches from the tree. This process damages the trees and harvests unripe coffee cherries that are wasted or used to produce low quality coffee blends. Handpicked African coffee results in a sweeter, more delicious cup of coffee. It values quality over quantity, preserves the trees, and maintains the forest ecosystem. A study on coffee’s water footprint reported that it requires 140 liters of water to produce one cup of coffee. Post-harvesting coffee production uses a ton of water. However, in Africa the most popular way to process coffee is by drying it out in African sun-beds. This process is known as the natural process or dry process as it does not use any water.
Naturally processed coffees are complex and fruit forward. These are some of the most celebrated African coffees. Naturally processed coffees aren't just delicious, they also save water. Water is a scarce resource in coffee producing communities and women walk long distances to secure it. Traditional coffee processing methods used by African farmers respect the natural needs of the beloved coffee plant. Because of climate change the mega corporations model of coffee growing and harvesting with only profits in mind is unsuitable for sustaining crops. African farmers engage in Intercropping which is the practice of growing multiple crops within close proximity to improve a crop's biodiversity.
African models of effective regenerative farming stand in sharp contrast to monoculture where a single coffee species is grown exclusively leading to the rapid erosion of soil nutrition. As a result, heavy use of chemicals like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are required to maintain industrial coffee farms. Healthy and vibrant soil doesn't require the use of chemicals. It produces more richly flavored coffee beans, nourishes the environment, and nurtures healthy communities free from harsh contaminants. Eco-friendly farming practices are the only real solution for the world to continue enjoying delicious natural coffee every morning.
Ethiopia’s coffee is in danger from climate change as are other African nations but the silver lining is that even though 40 per cent of the country’s coffee plantations could become unsuitable for growing coffee, according to the latest research there are a lot of areas not currently farmed in Africa that should be resilient to climate change, namely those at higher elevations which Africa has an abundance of in which coffee could one day play a major role. In fact, the Coffee arabica plant, the one that makes the most popular tasting coffee for European likes (as opposed to C. robusta), originates in Ethiopia. So this doesn’t have to be a sob story,. but preparing for the future will take work.