Climate Change & Its Impacts on Coffee Production
Most of us are well aware that coffee is highly susceptible to climate change. During visits to pretty well all coffee producing countries, the evidence - signs and stories - are there for all of us to see and hear.During our recent travels to both Colombia and Brazil, the impacts of climate change were all around us. From Colombian producer stories of little to no (yes, zero) production during peak harvest, to decreased sugar content in cherries due to plants being impacted by severe rains in Brazil, it becomes increasingly obvious that in addition to having strong agronomic practices and great cup profiles, being a great coffee producer now also means being adaptable to climate change.
El Niño vs. La Niña
First a brief background to the two weather phenomena we observed the effects of during our recent trip.
Whereas El Niño is referring to the warming of tropical Pacific surface waters from near the International Date Line to the west coast of South America from November to March once every 3 to 7 years, La Niña is the cooling of sea surface temperatures and takes place roughly half as often as El Niño.
(For an in-depth intro to the connections between climate change and these two weather phenomena, please see the links (below) under "Further Reading".)
El Niño & Colombia's Coffee Harvest
While travelling throughout the countryside in Huila, Colombia our team learned that while there was a net increase in coffee production between July 2015 to July 2016, this figure says nothing of the devastation El Niño wreaked earlier this year. Many of the country's departments, in particular Huila, experienced both the worst drought conditions and some of the highest recorded temperatures in over 130 years.
As described earlier, many farmers suffered through zero production moving into the peak of harvest. The lack of a harvest was caused by cherries not producing seeds due to the lack of rain and lead to a further serious consequence that many cherry picking labourers, who are paid by weight, simply refused to pick whatever was produced on the trees. For affected coffee farmers, the lack of picking causes even more future harm because the trees are then not prepared for the next harvest cycle.
La Niña & Brazil
While El Niño causes dry and even drought like conditions, like the ones our Colombian partners faced, La Niña produces the opposite: excessively rainy/wet conditions. In the case of our partners in the Carmo de Minas region of Brazil, La Niña brought three times the amount of rain at the beginning of the season than normal and this caused not only damage to many of the cherries, but also a disproportionate number of defects due to the increased opportunities for bacteria to infect drying cherries on the branches of coffee trees. In Brazil, the heat is often so intense during the dry season, when coffee is harvested, that fruit begins to parch while its still on the branches.
The results of all of this is evident in the cup, as many of the coffees we tasted had less sweetness and complexity than in previous years. The good news is that we were able to find and pick out the best of what was on offer. It just took more concentration during our screening and more samples to find these gems. From a farm perspective, our partners are fortunately well organized and have great practices and infrastructure in place. They can rely on some of their other farm activities to make up for coffee deficits from this harvest and are able to plan, adapt to and mitigate possible long-term effects from the weather conditions this year.
It wasn't all bad news during the course of this trip. We are delighted to report that in Colombia, production has picked up due to increased and steady rain over the past couple of months. We have begun working with a new partner in the Acevedo, Huila region in Colombia that we will elaborate further on in the near future.
In Brazil, our partners at Carmo Coffees are working on some incredibly interesting and potentially ground-breaking work on varieties and processing. We hope to offer some early showcases from this work in the coming arrivals and will keep you posted on how the coffees cup when we receive samples.