Scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and collaborators in Ethiopia have published a study on the impact of climate change on coffee farming in Ethiopia that finds that 60 per cent of Ethiopia’s coffee production area could become unsuitable for coffee farming before the end of the century. The study also found that moving production to higher ground and forest conservation and restoration could substantially increase the area suitable for coffee growing.
The research, conducted over a three-year period, investigated the potential for building a climate resilient coffee economy for Ethiopia. The paper, published in Nature Plants, is called ‘Resilience potential of the Ethiopian coffee sector under climate change’ (DOI:10.1038/nplants.2017.81, https://www.nature.com/articles/nplants201781
Ethiopia is the world’s fifth largest coffee producer and Africa’s main exporter. In 2015/16, 180,000 tonnes of coffee with a value of US$800 million was exported from the country, generating a quarter of its export earnings and providing livelihoods for around 15 million Ethiopians.
Justin Moat, co-leader of the study at Kew Gardens said: “This is the culmination of many years work, where we are trying to understand in detail the influence of climate change on coffee production in Ethiopia. We found that a ‘business as usual’ approach could be disastrous for the Ethiopian coffee economy in the long-term. Timely, precise, science-based decision making is required now and over the coming decades, to ensure sustainability and resilience for the Ethiopian coffee sector.”
In its wild state Arabica coffee is a forest plant restricted to the highlands of Ethiopia and neighbouring South Sudan. Currently 80 per cent of Ethiopia’s coffee comes from forests or forest-like habitats, covering an area of approximately 20,000km, with another 20 per cent grown in small plots in sun or partial shade.
The new study used detailed computer modelling developed by the World Climate Research Programme and high resolution satellite imagery to map the coffee growing landscape of Ethiopia, in combination with numerous computer simulations, to project changes in climatic suitability for coffee under different climate change scenarios until the end of this century.
The research shows that an increase in temperature of around 4°C by the end of this century could lead to a 39-59 per cent decrease in the current coffee-growing area of Ethiopia, if no interventions are made. Conversely, relocation of coffee-growing areas could potentially result in a fourfold increase in the coffee farming area within Ethiopia, even under climate change. However, this would require a major shift in the coffee growing landscape, mostly to higher altitudes, as temperatures continue to increase. Considerable numbers of farmers would need to diversify away from coffee, whilst others would need to take up coffee growing for the first time.
Generally, those areas that are currently marginal for coffee farming will decline first, although some areas that are highly suitable today are projected to decline more rapidly than expected. Some areas will have in-built climate resilience, mainly due to their current suitability and geographical position. The research provides climate change projections for each of Ethiopia’s 16 main coffee growing areas.
Feedback from coffee farmers and field study of coffee farming sites, indicates that coffee farming has already been adversely affected by climate change in Ethiopia, and that these changes happen slowly (over many decades) until tipping points are reached.
Dr Aaron Davis, co-leader of the research at Kew, said “On the basis of the study we now have a clear vision of what needs to be done to make the Ethiopian coffee sector climate resilient, at least until the end of this century. The sector has the potential to increase production, even under climate change. In the longer term, however, the only truly sustainable solution is to combat the root causes of climate change.”
Professor Sebsebe Demissew, a senior botanical scientist from the University of Addis Ababa and a co-author of the research said: “Arabica coffee originates from the highland forests of Ethiopia, and it is our gift to the world. As Ethiopia is the main natural storehouse of genetic diversity for Arabica coffee, what happens in Ethiopia could have long-term impacts for coffee farming globally. “