Will Coffee Survive Climate Change? We Traveled to the World’s Highest Farm to Find Out

"Unlike a human, a coffee plant cannot walk away from where it is. As a tree, it bears the brunt of the changing conditions over its lifespan.”

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Dec 3 2018, 6:30pm

All photos by the author. 

On the weaving drive through the Andes mountains to Finca Takesi you’ll want a window seat—just don’t look down. In this remote stretch of Bolivia a half day’s drive from La Paz, guard rails are a rarity and the only way to navigate the sine wave curves is by inching up against the cliff edge. At one fork, you literally have the option to turn onto what’s officially named “Death Road.”

If you work in coffee, the journey is worth the risk. Finca Takesi is the highest elevation coffee farm in the world, growing coffee under conditions that most consider impossible. But with the earth’s warming climate, the coffee industry will soon have to face up to the fact that their definitions of possible are about to change.According to World Coffee Research, 32 degrees Celsius is a clear tipping point where conditions become unsuitable for coffee. In their 2017 annual report, they concluded that 47 percent of current coffee production comes from countries that are predicted to lose more than 60 percent of their suitable coffee areas by 2050. To untangle that stat, approximately 28 percent of coffee farmland is at severe risk. Most of that farmland is low, dry, and hot, and primarily in countries like Brazil, Nicaragua, and India. A second study in 2016 by The Climate Institute states that nearly 50% of coffee growing areas will be unsuitable by 2050 and that wild coffee, a genetic resource used by researchers to breed new varietals, could be extinct by 2080.

Those dates are decades away, but speak to researchers and they sound much more urgent. “Without a doubt it’s already impacting farmers,” Christophe Montagnon, WCR’s scientific director, told MUNCHIES. “Climate change increases the number of risks farmers are taking, and with low market prices, they aren’t getting paid enough to offset those risks. As a result, in many cases, farmers are switching to other crops, whether it’s Arabica coffee farmers switching to Robusta coffee in India, or coffee farmers switching to macadamia nuts in Kenya or cacao in Nicaragua.”

Quick aside for the non-coffee-nerds out there—arabica and robusta are the two main coffee species. Robusta is more resilient and higher yield, but only used in low-grade coffees. Arabica is more delicate, but higher quality. It’s what you’ll find at fancy coffee shops with $6 pourovers and subway tile on the walls.

Arabica coffee’s fate is especially dire. A 2015 study by researchers in Colombia, Nicaragua, and Texas suggests that Brazil is projected to lose up to 95 percent of its suitable area for Arabica by 2100.

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Irregular coffee bean ripening at Finca Takesi

It’s no surprise that Finca Takesi only grows Arabica, including a super-expensive varietal called geisha (upcharge that pourover another $5). As we walk through the sloped hills of Finca Takesi, Intelligentsia Coffee president James McLaughlin points out how none of the beans growing on the trees are uniform. “This farm is a freak of nature,” he says. Some beans are big, red, and soft. Others green, tiny, and hard as stones. They take a snowflake approach to ripening. “It must be a nightmare to harvest, they’d have to pick them all year round,” says McLaughlin.

The reason McLaughlin is at this farm for the third time is that their coffees are truly phenomenal, but he’s here to share more than the complex flavors of their beans. The visit is part of Intelligentsia’s Extraordinary Coffee Workshop, basically a TED conference for the coffee industry that doubles as a family reunion for Intelli’s global network of farmers. As the farmers from regions as far flung as Ethiopia walk the fields, they marvel at the logistical burdens on the producers.

“Every time we visit the producers they’re always reporting issues of drought or excessive rain or weird heat waves, and that is definitely having an effect,” says McLaughlin. “The Extraordinary Coffee Workshop is an opportunity for farmers to talk about different techniques to combat those issues.”

The most logical solution to warming climates is to move to higher elevations, but not everyone has the luxury of higher ground. And even Takesi feels the squeeze of changing climate.

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Rosa Chambi Corina receives a lifetime achievement award for her contribution to Finca Takesi alongside Mariana Iturralde, Carlos Iturralde, Michael Sheridan, and a very cute dog.

“We have noticed that the snow-capped mountain Mururata that is seen from our farm has less snow every year,” says Mariana Iturralde, Finca Takesi’s manager. Cold weather and rains have also been less predictable in recent years, pushing back harvests and making economic projections even less stable.

Growing coffee at 2400 meters won’t be the new normal anytime soon, but the farm is symbolic of the industry’s biggest threat and potential solutions. Unpredictable rain was one of the main causes of coffee leaf rust, a disease that decimated Central America’s coffee supply starting in 2011. The WCR reported that within the following five years, it affected 70 percent of farms, caused 3.2 billion dollars in lost revenue, and cost 1.7 million people their jobs.

“Even growers who have been spared the worst impacts of CLR have coped with the underlying changes in climate that made CLR more widespread,” says Michael Sheridan, Intelligentsia’s Director of Sourcing and Shared Value. “Drought, high temps, irregular precipitation. The key point here is that CLR is only a symptom, and there will likely be other symptoms and crises ahead.”

The first major solution to the problem has to do with the economics of importing. Most importers tie their price to the commodity market, where rates have recently nosedived below $1. Since $1 is the cost of production, it’s near impossible for small, low-grade farmers to make a profit to begin with (but that’s another story in itself).

True direct trade isn’t tied to the commodity market, so farmers know roughly the price they’ll receive for their coffee each year. Harvests still might be unpredictable, but at least you know how much you’re earning per bag, which helps farmers plan long-term infrastructure investments that will give some relief as the earth warms. The WCR stresses irrigation, shade trees, soil management, and crop diversification as short-term strategies to mitigate risk. These can still be big investments for farmers, and difficult to implement without the security of a reliable price for their product.

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Pop-up coffee service by Cafe Typica at Finca Takesi

The organization is also a big proponent of F1 hybrid coffee varieties, crossbreeds designed to be climate-resilient, high-quality, and high-yield. They’re working on new breeds specifically designed for heat tolerance and testing them for performance in hot dry climates like Zambia. And forward-thinking farmers like those at Finca Takesi are still taking varietal experimentation seriously, recently planting Java and Catuai to study how they adapt to the unique microclimate.

Thankfully the WCR isn’t alone in their research. Brazilian professor Lucas Louzada is quick to point out that a Google Scholar search shows 5,000 titles published since 2014 that deal with genetic improvement of the coffee plant. In addition to improved genetics, he believes coffee is on the move. “New regions are coming. The major producers like Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia need to look for new horizons. China is growing fast as a coffee producer, Myanmar and Philippines are starting coffee plantations again.”

Like so many other elements of climate change, the effects on the coffee industry might seem so far away that it’s tempting to just kick the can (of Folger’s) down the road. But given that the typical lifespan of a coffee farm is about 30 years, today’s fledgling farmers are the ones who’ll be setting the foundations to fight against the coffee dystopia projected for 2050. Still, if the current climate projections have been underestimated, we could be looking at a doomsday scenario.

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The red beans are nearly ready to pick.

“On a more basic level, unlike a human, a coffee plant cannot walk away from where it is. As a tree, it bears the brunt of the changing conditions over its lifespan,” says Montagnon of World Coffee Research. “Farmers can mitigate the effects of climate through irrigation and planting shade trees to provide relief, which definitely helps. But if the change is too great, a coffee tree—despite its efforts to be resilient—will not necessarily survive.”