How are Colombian coffee growers are adapting to climate change?

The most associated export related to Colombia is perhaps coffee. In 2016 the country produced 14,23 million bags of coffee and exported as much as 12,9 million bags. The coffee industry employs roughly 25% of Colombia’s rural population and has become a significant economic driver for the country.

The industry has grown thanks to Colombia’s environment, which is ideal for the cultivation of Arabica. Arabica accounts for 70% of all coffee sold worldwide and grows best in regions with steady year-round rainfall and at altitudes ranging 1,300-1,500 meters, matching Colombia’s southwestern mountain region climate.

Unfortunately, the region’s natural advantages have been affected by climate change. Not only temperatures are reaching daily higher and lower limits but precipitation patterns have drastically changed. These changes have placed enormous stress on coffee plants which affects both the size and quality of the coffee beans. Also, pests such as the coffee rust fungus and the coffee borer beetle have spread across the region and other plant species have been moving slowly uphill and competing with coffee plants for the same nutrients.

According to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), climate change adversely affects small coffee farmers which are crucial for the industry. “Smallholders produce the bulk of the world’s coffee and the industry cannot afford a steeply falling output in this sector,” pointed out the ICO.

But Colombian coffee growers are rapidly adapting to their new reality through a combination of varied farming techniques and pest control.

Now many coffee growers mix other crops such as tomatoes and yucca alongside their coffee plants to experiment with hybrid coffee plants that are better adapted to climate extremes and resist pests. Other group of growers are diversifying their business not to solely rely on coffee. Also to fight pests they use a variety of pesticides such as a fungus called Beauveria bassiana which is a predator of the coffee rust fungus.

More so, there’s an uneven distribution of climate change. As The Ecologyst reports, it is very challenging to predict how it will affect a given region, especially mountainous ones where the topography creates many microclimates in one general area. For example, one valley can be dry and sunny while the neighboring one is being flooded with rainfall.

This is what happens in Finca la Pradera in Calarcá, near the city of Armenia. La Pradera valley has experienced almost no change in weather patterns for the last years and produces premium organic coffee. Nonetheless, they’re prepared for the future. They are open to use CRISPR genetic technology instead of GMOs to continue to use organic practices with better adapted plants. CRISPR makes changes in the organism’s own genome instead of introducing genes form other organisms as it happens with GMOs.

So are we going in the right direction?
For Dr. Forest Ray, form The Ecologyst “there remains much that people can do to stave off a coffee-free future.” He mentions how the Colombian coffee growers’ federation offers financial incentives to growers for planting pest and climate-resistant hybrids. Also, governments can invest in better climate sensing infrastructure and communication networks between farmers.

“Your coffee won’t disappear tomorrow, but keep an eye on places like Colombia for what the future holds. As one of the world’s three biggest coffee producers, what happens here will affect the entire coffee market,” Ray concludes.

LatinAmerican Post | María Andrea Márquez

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