Coffee and Climate: The Myth of Mitigation

Deli Cafe commissioned art installation by San Jose local

The climate changes we’re currently experiencing did not happen overnight; they’re the product of years and years of human habits. Like a car hurtling along at 90mph, it’s taken us a while to pick up speed. Only now that we’ve reached such velocity do we see the cliff of a habitable planet gaping on the horizon. We know we need to change direction.

But just like driving at 90, we need to slow down and stop in order to turn around. Climate change mitigation has become a new favorite talking point from scientific to political soapboxes, but for mitigation to really happen we have to let off the gas.

Braking, just like mitigation efforts, is meaningless if we’re also hitting the gas pedal. Attempts at slowing climate change, such as aggressive reforestation programs, are useless if we’re still driving Hummers to the mall.

Discussions around climate change are happening along all contours of the coffee sphere, but in different contexts. Usually the conversation doesn’t make it to mitigation; it doesn’t make it past, “what do we do to keep producing coffee in the face of what’s happening right now?”

Coffee is an extremely responsive crop, and shifts in wind, sun, rain, and temperature all directly affect the quality and quantity of a plant’s production. Everyone involved in coffee production knows that climate change is a grave reality.

It gets even trickier because these weather changes also indirectly affect crops with the favorable conditions they create for pests that attack coffee. Jose, a Peruvian agronomist verified that, “yes there are evidences [of climate change]. We’ve recorded coffee berry borers at 1000 meters above sea level, now we’ve recorded them at 1400. The climatic conditions are becoming apparent; that’s why we’re seeing this. My brother didn’t have anything in place against the borer and so suddenly he saw a decrease in production. With higher temperatures, there’s a greater possibility that crops are damaged because the borer can propagate more easily. With higher temperatures they stay more active and there’s a greater likelihood they’ll move to new places.”

The responses to these new patterns of pests, diseases and plant output have to be immediate. If the crop changes this year, the management of it has to change too. ECOM’s entire Sustainable Management Services division is devoted to developing ways to deal with the new climactic realities and the challenges they present for producers (and the subsequently affected players in the rest of their integrated supply chain).

The greatest challenge of climate change is probably that the obstacles are impossible to predict. It’s much harder to get ready for battle if you don’t know the enemy. Coffee interests (exporters, brokers, and integrated companies like Starbucks) are pouring money into dealing with what’s going on now. The development of new adaptive varieties of plants, new strands of agrochemicals to manage rapidly evolving pests and diseases, and farm technology to handle erosion, run off, and the literally changing landscape takes clear precedence. Neithe the focus nor the money ever make it to mitigation.

In his report on coffee and climate at Sintercafe, Michael Opitz, Chairman of the Board of the Management of the Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung,foundation says, “you look at Colombia, where “la niña” came in much stronger than expected and brought heavy rains to the coffee regions for three consecutive years. The spell of growing was a big problem, and the decline in production. These fundamentals make the market actually move in unprecedented ways while skyrocketing the differentials for Colombia, but also for other Central [American coffee]s. This lesson also may also pose challenges for the coffee sector, for everybody involved in trading operations, because replacements need to be used and new supply chains need to be established, which again, add cost.”  His response to climate change includes a recognition that ways of physically getting coffee need to change in our current erratic climate, but his analysis lacks a discussion of what the industry could be doing, as part of their solution to the problem, to ensure they don’t have to keep solving a worsening version of the same problem for (literally) the rest of their lives.

Which is conceptually frustrating, precisely because coffee is so affected by climate. Since coffee reacts immediately and unpredictably to climate change, it’s in the industry’s best interest to stop contributing to the problem that’s giving them such a headache to solve.

But that becomes the last item on the list. Fighting climate change starts to look a lot like a flawed battle plan; the majority of resources have to be devoted to the defensive in order to keep the army alive, but then fortification for the offensive only gets the leftovers, and it warrants much more because the impending enemy is much stronger than the current one.

For example, there is minimal, if any, discussion in the coffee industry of reducing emissions from trucks used to transport coffee to and from ports. Some statistics show transport as being one of the smallest contributors to the carbon footprint of the chain from crop to cup. I’ve hung out at enough beneficios to know that those large trucks full of ripe fruit pulling in one after another have left quite a carbon footprint along the mountain roads they wound up and down for the past 8 hours collecting harvests from farmers.

Even Doug Welsh, Vice President of specialty roaster/supplier Peet’s Coffee and Tea admits that their dedication to quality trumps their commitment to climate change mitigation. He notes, “Delivering to 10,000 supermarkets with our own employees every day is very, very difficult to do…I don’t even want to think about the carbon footprint. It’s not a good practice in that sense, but it lends us this tremendous advantage.”  It might not feel like it, but all those delivery vans running to and fro are the reason why Colombia crumbled under La Niña.

Responses to the damaging and often commercially disastrous effects of climate change have to be coupled with real steps towards mitigation. And you can’t make a situation better while actively making it worse.

So what to do? Return to those attractively painted Costa Rican oxcarts and tell Juan Valdez to take his burro out of retirement?

Because questions of an industry overhaul have no easy answers, they’re exactly the ones no one’s asking. Perhaps the question on the tips of everyone’s tounge should be, “how can we make radical transformations in the supply chain to transform coffee into a leader among commodities, an innovator in taking real steps towards mitigation, the first being to stop contributing to the problem?” Agroforests and sustainably managed farms are working hard to pull carbon out of the air and store it in trees, but they wouldn’t have to take so much out if those diesel delivery trucks weren’t spewing so much in.

Climate change is happening so rapidly that there’s more than enough to occupy every body and every dollar allocated to sustainability with playing catch-up by adapting operations that allow people (along all links in the chain) to make it from one day to the next. But we can’t forget that the use of hybrid vehicles and the search for new planting regions are actually directly connected.

Because coffee plants themselves are trees the industry has an inherent advantage: just by growing, coffee wants to start mitigating climate change. It is also shipped via containers versus being air freighted, so coffee need not lose nearly as much sleep over its role in climate change as other industries should. But because it has so much going for it, coffee has the potential to really and truly contribute to mitigation by stepping on the brakes while taking the other foot off the gas.


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