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FEATURE: Colombia – your favourite coffee could be under threat

In an article published in UK trade magazine, The Grocer, Claudia Martinez discusses the climate challenges facing Colombia’s coffee growers, and outlines CDKN’s work supporting the coffee industry in Colombia. 

How many British consumers realise that supply of Colombia’s famous Arabica coffee is at risk from climate change?  And do they know of the innovative work to protect our coffee production?

I noticed at last month’s Planet Under Pressure conference in London just how popular Columbian coffee is.  Rest assured, we are working hard to keep that production viable in the future, and maintain its quality as the best in the world. You may even see new coffee varieties coming your way.

Climate change is taking a toll on Colombian agriculture with more intense rains and floods. In the future, disruptive rainfall and rising temperatures could change the way we produce coffee, as well as the cocoa, sugar cane and fruits that we export.

That’s why I’m working with others to try and make Colombia’s coffee industry, and the small farmers behind it, more resilient to climate change.

Colombia is the land of coffee. More than half a million families produce coffee, almost all on small farm plots. No other economic activity generates the income and social development that coffee does in rural areas. Coffee growing is a family-run operation, borne of hard work, passion and dedication. It’s no wonder that the resulting beans have a high quality that Britons adore!

The crop is cultivated in geographically diverse areas across the country and particularly in the Andean Cordillera at altitudes from 1,200 to 1,800 metres – the perfect environment for the production of mild Colombian coffee beans.

In the past, farmers have depended on a predictable climate to make a living.  They cannot do that any longer.  In 2010-11, heavy rainfall associated with La Niña swelled the Magdalena River, destroying crops, infrastructure and homes across the river basin. This so-called ‘winter emergency’ affected more than 1.9 million Colombians and wiped out more than 280,000 homes.  Colombia’s 2011 coffee production dropped by12 percent and that emergency could warn of things to come.

The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts more climate extremes in Latin America during the 21st century, with scientists saying there is a reasonable likelihood of more frequent heavy rain between now and 2100.

Average temperatures in the country are also projected to creep upward. Coffee plants are very vulnerable in a changing climate and the question is whether Colombia’s mountains can retain the cool, moist conditions needed for coffee-growing? Scientists and policy makers agree on a goal of not going beyond 2 degrees of global warming, considered “safe” for maintaining the earth’s systems.

But for coffee farmers this is far from safe.  Two degrees is the equivalent of having to move 450 metres higher up the mountainside to find suitable growing conditions but there is less land higher up and much of it is protected.

Colombia’s National Coffee Growers Federation is working to keep Colombian coffee production viable and quality high.  Initiatives include conserving healthy environments in river basins, planting shade trees in coffee farms, and developing new varieties to improve coffee quality while increasing disease resistance. They are also trying to make coffee plants more adaptable to temperature rises and changes in water and nutrient availability.

My organisation, the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), is working to assess the vulnerability of small farmers and these production systems and partnering with the Centre for International Tropical Agriculture,  the National Institute of Coffee Research, Universidad del Cauca and Universidad del Valle  and the Instituto de Hidrologia, Meteorologia y Estudios Ambientales.

We must work on production planning, environmental protection, new technologies and household economic strategies to help Colombia’s coffee farmers plan for a secure future.  And what better message for British retailers and coffee-drinkers than to know of all these efforts to continue the future of Colombian coffee and the farmers that grow it?
Image: Courtesy of Neil Palmer (CIAT). A coffee farm worker in Cauca, southwestern Colombia.

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