Will Colombian Coffee Cease to Exist?

By Stephanie Jiménez

Who makes the best coffee in Latin America? The argument still stands, but we do know that of the South American producers, Colombia comes in second to Brazil in exporting around two billion United States dollars worth of Arabica coffee (Workman, 2020). Coffee from South America makes up a whopping 31% of the agricultural trade with the U.S. (Eise, 2018). Although the profits and demand for coffee may seem secure, the actual growing of coffee is extremely threatened by climate change. Colombia’s small family coffee farmers are not only at risk of bankruptcy, but of being unable to grow coffee as usual.

Latin American and Caribbean food production in general is dominated by family based farmers. This amounts to about 60 million people with valuable knowledge about the land and environments they work (Núñez, 2020). Each family sized farm harbors their knowledge of the region within 5-12 acre farms (Sustain Coffee, 2018). These 560,000 smallholders produce 69% of coffee that Colombia produces, yet over 80% of them remain poor (Sustain Coffee, 2018). Most of Colombia’s coffee farmers are members of the Colombian National Coffee Federation. This nonprofit federation is what connects this army of Colombian small farmers to the food market along with the New York stock exchange (Nace, 2019). Coffee, sugar, cocoa and cotten markets have merged with each other since the late 1800s and today exists between the New York Board of Trade and IntercontinentalExchange (Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, n.d.). Small farmers' abilities to meet the demands of such a large market have had several inherent struggles.

It is crucial to understand that growing coffee is extremely difficult to begin with. For one, you have poor farmers who rely entirely on the coffee trade without enough financial security to adjust their farms to disaster. Many farmers do not entirely survive off of their production but instead also rely on farm tours and other community events. A strong reliance on the product means that any change to production could be detrimental. Colombia’s National Federation of Coffee Growers reported that the land used for growing coffee has shrunk by 20% since the 1990s (Schiffman, 2019). This shrink is most likely due to ranchers, other farmers, miners, and loggers. Another threat lies in the geology of the Andean mountains. Arabica, the only coffee species Colombia cultivates, prefers high sloped altitudes that are hard to work with modern technology. There is also a constant risk of mudslides and erosion that can exacerbate floods, droughts, and pest infestations (Eise, 2018). In fact, these sloped regions are frequently at medium or high flood and landslide alert (Acosta, 2017). Coffee is also at risk for disease such as the leaf rust crisis that greatly reduced the number of healthy trees between 2008-2011 (Sustain Coffee, 2018). To begin with, coffee was difficult to produce. It is a laborious crop to cultivate and the land available for safe growth is continuously under threat.

What happens when climate change comes into the picture? Overall there has been a great loss in the production and quality of coffee. Coffee trees are notoriously sensitive plants. They cannot handle too much of too little sun, rain, or finicky temperature changes. Climate change in Colombia has caused the average temperature to rise from 1.3-2.5 degrees Celsius for days and nights. The wet and dry seasons are more extreme due to frequent and dramatic El Niño events (Schiffman, 2019). Colombia will experience an estimated 30% increase of extreme weather and rainfall by 2050 (Sustain Coffee, 2018). But the effects of climate change have already reached Colombia’s coffee farms.

Colombian farmers have been reporting events such as changing average temperatures, increased drought severity, more frequent mountain landslides due to increased rainfall, changes in flowering and fruiting cycles, and increased occurrences of pests and crop diseases (Eise, 2018). These reports demonstrate that climate change has altered traditional seasonal indicators for harvesting coffee which in recent years has caused production to drop. To this day, coffee production has yet to pick itself back up again (Eise, 2018). 30% of current coffee growing regions are vulnerable to severe effects of climate change–making it unlikely that wild Arabica will be able to grow anymore (Sustain Coffee, 2018).

Climate change and less productive yields also affect the social roles of farmers. Studies have shown that rural farmers strongly connect work with family responsibilities known as the family-work-belief triad. Therefore, the responses to climate change are often internalized as a failure to provide (Núñez, 2020). This is why education on the effects of climate change are important steps towards mitigation. Education on the long term effects of climate change should be emphasized in addition to other mitigative farming techniques. There are several projects of researchers working alongside farmers to study how certain agricultural techniques can produce crops despite increased temperature and rainfall. Other changes include adapting field work schedules to altering climate patterns, providing more appropriate clothing especially those that protect against mosquitos. However, the most promising systematic change for farmers in Colombia is to further integrate agroforestry.

Agroforestry is a farming technique where trees are grown with crops. By introducing new plants like Spanish elm trees, bananas, avocados, rubber, and even pineapple, these artificial forests can increase nutrient yield, food for the farmers, and provide shade and flood control for the coffee trees (Kiptot & Franzel, 2011). Adding other crops to the farm can also increase revenue as farmers can sell more than just coffee. Another reality for Colombian coffee is that the Arabica species is likely to be replaced by Robusta, especially in the lower elevation areas. Colombia only grows the wild Arabica species which is known to be sweet and soft with hints of fruity or nutty flavors. With twice as much caffeine as Arabica, Robusta carries a strong and bitter taste. It is also easier to grow since it is more resistant to pests and weather, and fruits more quickly (Durand, 2008). For the higher altitudes, there is hope that methods like agroforestry can take hold, however there is still the impending issue of conflicts with logging and mining. Implementing dynamic solutions is the most hopeful attempt at saving coffee farms in Colombia.

60% of the global production of coffee is dominated by the Arabica species which can no longer survive where it normally grows due to climate change. Unfortunately, many estimates of the longevity of coffee with regards to the drastic changes in climate predict that 50% of the land across the globe used to farm coffee will not be farmable by 2100 (Nace, 2019). There is no telling if by that time the Arabica coffee species will already be extinct, raising the question of whether farmers and researchers should begin breeding new disease and climate resistant species from the wild Arabica. Besides Arabica, 60% of all coffee species are threatened and on the path towards extinction (Davis, 2019). The future of coffee in Colombia relies on breeding new strains that can survive heavy rainfall and increasing temperatures. It also relies on small farmers’ education and finances in order to transform their farms into multifaceted agroforests. Hopefully, Colombian coffee farmers are able to make these changes in time. For now, continue to support these businesses and enjoy what could possibly be your last cup of Arabica.

Stephanie Jiménez is Mexican American and was raised in Pittsburgh. They are currently pursuing a BS in environmental science and a BA in music via the global and popular music track. They are also working towards certificates in geographical information systems, Latin American studies, and sustainability. Stephanie draws on their cultural background and disciplines to forge studies on the intersections between the environment and music. Through their teaching experience at the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center (Florida Recycled), Pitt’s Center for Creativity, and the Allegheny Land Trust, Stephanie has begun exploring how science and music are tools for advocacy work. In May 2020, Stephanie was awarded a grant from the Anita J. Curka Scholarship for Music to research topics of environmentalism in indigenous and Latin American music in their senior thesis through the lenses of ethnoecology and ecomusicology. After graduation, Stephanie hopes to pursue a higher degree in agroforestry and/or ethnomusicology.


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