The Complexities of Climate Change

Rising temperatures, unpredictable weather patterns and an increase in disease and infestation are all indicators that the climate in our atmosphere is changing. According to NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United States), one of the leading contributors to these shifts in climate is the increased concentration of greenhouse gases. Decreasing carbon emissions has been the focus for several industries, with countries like the US setting a target of reduction of carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. In fact, putting strategies in place that will work towards net zero – that is, zero waste and carbon neutral – are incorporated into several companies’ sustainability plans.

Sustainability action plans are even more essential for the agricultural sector. The challenge with an agricultural-based industry is that the success and/or failure of the plant is highly dependent on its environment. Drought, monsoons, extreme temperature shifts and other unpredictable weather patterns have affected both the production level and health of tea and coffee.

Climate change is not a new topic, but there is a concern that the constant doom and gloom conversations may result in a feeling of helplessness and information fatigue. However, Hanna Neuschwander, communications director, World Coffee Research, stressed that now is not the time for the coffee industry to be passive. In fact, there are several small actions that producers and manufacturers alike can take, that in the end, will have a large net result.

On a positive note, climate change has increased the awareness on the impact that we have on the environment and has led to some much overdue changes in both the tea and coffee industry. This includes increased awareness of best practices like the use of fertilizer and pesticides, product diversification and pruning. “There were lot of innovations that took place, in coffee, like agroforestry,” said Christophe Montagnon, scientific director, World Coffee Research, College Station, Texas. “Climate change is putting pressure on something that was needed anyway.”

According to the International Trade Centre’s 2014 report, Mitigating Climate Change in the Tea Sector, the agricultural sector can help to reduce the release of several greenhouse gases. One of these gases is carbon dioxide, which is produced through the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. Following closely behind is methane, emitted from manure and decomposition of organic waste, and then nitrous oxide, which is released when nitrogen fertilizers are applied.

Generally, there are two actions that work toward the continuation of both tea and coffee: climate mitigation and climate adaptation. These cannot be looked at as separate principles, but instead, should be continually examined by all individuals involved in the agricultural sector.

Mitigating Climate Change’s Impact

When it comes to companies’ sustainability action plans, the majority are focusing on climate mitigation. The focus of these broad initiatives is to decrease the overall emissions of greenhouse gases, with carbon being the primary focus. To provide some actionable solutions for the tea sector, the Ethical Tea Partnership and GIZ worked together to create a climate change adaptation manual. This manual takes a deep look at the cause of the emissions and provides concrete solutions to help reduce them. The Ethical Tea Partnership is a not-for-profit membership organisation based in London, England, which exists to improve tea sustainability, the lives and livelihoods of tea workers and smallholder farmers, and the environment in which tea is produced. GIZ is a Germany-based organisation that provides services worldwide in the field of international cooperation for sustainable development.

Agroforestry – agriculture incorporating the cultivation and conservation of trees – is highly recommended by both Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) and World Coffee Research (WTR) to help mitigate climate change. Simply associating trees with coffee, stressed Montagnon, will not only help absorb carbon emissions, it will also assist with reducing temperatures, help combat soil erosion and add organic matter to the region. Certified eucalyptus seeds are one of the tree species that ETP has recommended for Africa. These trees can both help absorb carbon and are also recommended as an alternative fuel source.

The challenge with agroforestry, as with several other mitigation strategies, is that the it can be cost prohibitive. For farmers to implement these type of solutions, they need to see the value, not only for the environment but socio-economically. “It is our responsibility to take into the account the constraints of the coffee farmer and be able to address them,” said Montagnon. “Farmers will choose agroforestry when the trees give them added value, like fruit or medicine.”

Increased education and training for both tea and coffee producers on best practices, is helping mitigate climate change. This includes offering both the rationale for fertilizer and pesticide use, and the strategies on how to best use them. “A big part of this is helping coffee farmers be better farmers, we do have 10,000 years of good farming methods to draw on,” said Neuschwander. This includes looking at the tools and techniques to adapt to climate change, and in turn help build the resiliency within in the plants.

Increasing Plant Resilience

“If you think of coffee as a factory, you have two main assets, the planting material and your soil,” said Montagnon. “If you don’t have quality soil or good planting material, then everything else is useless.” To respond to this fact WCR has invested substantial resources in researching both new varieties and soil conservation techniques.

Disease is innovative and highly adaptive and, in most cases, it evolves more rapidly than the plant does. In coffee research, Neuschwander stressed, we are about 20-30 years behind. Coffee leaf rust adapts in about two weeks while the plant itself takes three years to grow. To keep up, there needs to be continuous breeding programs and research.

Planting the varieties that are best suited for an area, offering both the quality the farmer is seeking and the resilience, can help lend to a farmer’s success. To address this, WCR has introduced a variety of projects including the recent launch of their coffee catalogue and Christian Bunn’s work on coffee modelling.

“We tried to provide the backbone to what is happening in climate change in adaptation. In our modelling approach, the goal is twofold: one is to help raise awareness, and the other is to move towards actions,” said Christian Bunn, researcher, CIAT (The International Center for Tropical Agriculture). CIAT, based in Palmira, Colombia, is a not-for-profit research and development organization dedicated to reducing poverty and hunger while protecting natural resources in developing countries.

Prior to the modelling study, there was uncertainty whether the challenge for coffee was a result of drought or heat, resulting in some chatter that the solution was Robusta. However, Bunn emphasized that it is not as simple as planting a new variety, and in fact, Robusta will struggle to adapt in certain regions. “The impacts and solutions will not be homogeneous,” said Bunn. “The key is to identify the source of climatic stress and provide adaptations that will be site specific.”

It is critical to identify the farms that are currently vulnerable and help put initiatives in place to help adapt, in general this includes straying away from monoculture crops and incorporate product diversification. “Product diversification is simply a better strategy, particularly for small holders, for if they have a bad year they will not be out of business,” said Neuschwander.

The goal with the climate modelling and the field research that WCR is doing is to provide a usable guide for the producer that looks at long-term solutions. For some it will be adaptation, for others it will be continue as is, and for still others the recommendation may be to move away from coffee altogether. “The key is we have to confront solutions, not just shifting to Robusta, but look at all of the alternative solutions to adapt to climate change,” said Bunn.

The tea industry is also involved with similar strategies, researching both the varieties and techniques that will best adapt to the shifting weather patterns. As part of a recent project on the impact of climate in Assam tea plantations, the Tea Research Association, based in Assam, India, jointly with the University of Southampton, UK, have developed their own model piecing together both the climate data and yield for the past 10 years. The tool was created to inform plantations with both information on climate change and provide both short- and long-term strategies to adapt.

One thing remains clear that both tea and coffee plantations need to look at a variety of strategies to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. These strategies include product diversification, agroforestry and better farming practices to help build plant resiliency.

A Collaborative Effort is Required

As the research on the impacts of climate change continues to become available, there are a variety of actions that producers can take that will help improve the resiliency of the plants. On a positive note, the tools to invest in plant resiliency are becoming more attainable, including a variety of genomes to replace strains that are more prone to disease. The solution is not as simple as replacing plants or adding more fertilizer, it is about continually looking at ways to adapt while mitigating the impact on the environment.

“When it comes to looking at regions for coffee growing, it is about taking a finer-grained lens to determine what suitable really means,” said Neuschwander. “We need to ask, can they grow coffee with adaptations, continue to grow with no adaptations or is it time to get out of coffee altogether?”

The impact of climate change on tea and coffee production is evident. Solutions to adapt and mitigate the effect both short term and long term are multifaceted, from the type of plant grown to the techniques used to process it. There is still a lot of work to be done, but research and sustainable practices are helping provide strategies that will guide the future of these essential agricultural crops.

Combating climate change and increasing plant resiliency cannot be the action of one company or producer, it is about everyone working together to combat the impact. “There is not a solution to climate change. It is not being solved by one big hammer on one big nail,” stressed Neuschwander. “There needs to be thousands of tiny hammers on tiny nails.”

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