Climate Change: Coffee Farmers Feel the Heat

10/06/2015 15:50 BST | Updated 10/06/2016 10:59 BST


Coffee farms in Peru have been badly hit by a devastating outbreak of leaf rust. Through Fairtrade, they are learning new techniques to adapt to the changing climate. © Santiago Engelhardt

Just a stone's throw from my own office at Fairtrade International, negotiators at this week's United Nations climate change talks in Bonn are working round the clock to hammer out a deal for the make-or-break summit in Paris this December. But as they negotiate into the wee hours of the morning, they might reflect that the strong black coffee keeping them awake is itself under threat from global warming.

Coffee growers from Indonesia to Tanzania to Guatemala are already feeling the heat. Higher temperatures, extreme weather events, increased pests and plant diseases are hitting both the quality and quantity of coffee crops. Arabica beans - which account for 75% of world sales - are particularly susceptible to even small changes in temperatures. According to one recent study published by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), coffee production in some countries is expected to decline by as much as a quarter by 2050. We can all expect to pay significantly more for our daily fix of the black stuff - if we can get it. As climate expert Dr Peter Baker said, at a packed meeting in April organized by Nicaraguan coffee farmers: 'We need a sense of urgency to address the crisis in coffee caused by climate change. And we need a new set of rules to address pricing in the whole sector'.

We might grumble but let's face it: we can afford to shell out that bit more for our morning latte. Inevitably, it's the small-scale farmers in developing countries who will suffer most. An estimated 25 million families worldwide depend on coffee production for their livelihoods. One Fairtrade coffee cooperative in Malawi reports that climate change has wiped out nearly half of the 10 million coffee trees they planted since 2003. In Central and South America, many farmers are tackling a devastating outbreak of leaf rust, a fungal disease widely linked to warmer temperatures. In February, I visited Guatemala and I was shocked. In every discussion with every farmer, climate change just kept coming up. Coffee farmers told us that their harvest was down by 40% - and they depend on coffee for their income so imagine the impact.

And it's not just coffee - crops including rice, tea, wheat, maize, bananas and cocoa are all at risk from climate change. According to the UN, even a small global temperature increase of 1°C would lead to reductions of 5-10% in the yields of major cereal crops. Twelve million hectares of productive land become barren every year due to desertification and drought alone - affecting more than one billion people. Rising sea levels in the Ganges delta mean the soil is becoming too salty to grow rice - threatening the food security of three million people. We met bee-keepers who work in the protected Mayan biosphere, shaking their heads as they showed us empty hives: it was far too cold for that time of year and the bees weren't making any honey.

In Fairtrade we have been setting our plans to 2020. And it was the producers who put climate change up there on our agenda: adapting to new weather patterns is a daily reality for them. From Kenya to Peru, farmers are using the Fairtrade Premium they get from the sale of Fairtrade certified crops to research and invest in innovate schemes to help them combat climate change. Tea farmers in Malawi for example have been using Premium money to plant indigenous and exotic trees in the area to improve the soil and attract more rain. Our Fairtrade Standards include stringent environmental standards designed to encourage sustainable food production.

Everyone in the global food supply chain has a part to play - that's why, with the help of public and private funding, we're developing adaptation projects such as reforestation in Peru, and creating demonstration farming plots with tea farmers in Kenya, working together with partner organizations.

We're also currently developing Fairtrade Carbon Credits, to make farming communities economically stronger against the effects of climate change while enabling companies to reduce their carbon footprint. The producers will pay a key role in developing the projects themselves, and will receive a Fairtrade Premium for each credit sold to invest in more ways to adapt to climate change.

But all of this will count for little if governments don't play their part. So as those UN negotiators down yet another double espresso to keep themselves going through the night, I hope they remember there's much more than coffee at stake - the futures of millions of farmers, producers and workers round the world depend on binding commitments and action to keep climate change in check.