Wednesday, January 4, 2023

We will still have coffee

At the end of last summer, Bloomberg News reported that Arabica farmers in Brazil were seeing bigger-than-expected losses for a coffee crop and might loose half their crop-threatening a shortage. The world’s Coffee Belt spans the globe along the equator, with cultivation in North, Central, and South America; the Caribbean; Africa; the Middle East; and Asia. Brazil is the world’s largest coffee-producing country. A failed crop there means less coffee and higher prices world wide. 

Having once read a very interesting article on growing coffee from the Department of Agriculture, I was concerned that weather extremes due to climate change may make coffee unavailable in the last years of my life. Computer modeling shows climate changes that could  cause severe declines in both yield and suitable growing conditions in the current cultivation zone for coffee over this century. Life in this country will require many adaptions and changes due to climate change. We will all have less. I just don't want my less to include the loss of my daily coffee. 

Today the global supply of coffee depends on two species: Arabica (Coffea arabica; around 55% of global production) and robusta (C.canephora; around 45% of global production). The optimal temperature range for growing arabica is 64°–70°F. Above that moderate temperature range, fruit development and ripening accelerate and degrades coffee bean quality. Continuous exposure to temperatures up to 86°F  can severely damage coffee plants, stunting growth, yellowing leaves, even spawning stem tumors. Hotter environments cannot support arabica.

A warming climate may also hurt coffee production by reducing growing area, increasing pests, and damaging the quality of plants. Much of the world’s coffee production depends on farmers living at a subsistence level, and many of them grow only coffee, not food crops. Less coffee, means less income for people living on the edge.  l but all is not lost. There is the possibility of development of new coffee crop plants.

 The idea of broadening the coffee crop portfolio, with new cultivars, hybrids and alternative species (including underutilized crop species) is receiving renewed attention with a focus on forgotten or underutilized species, particularly those that were once cultivated and exported at scale and natural species. (I was relieved that ideas did not run to gene splicing.) 

One species now receiving increased consideration and focus is liberica or Liberian coffee (Coffea liberica), as evidenced by the adoption of the plant by farmers in Africa and Asia. There are actually two species of liberica:  C. liberica: var. liberica and var. dewevrei. These two varities are known commonly as liberica and excelsa. Though the plant had not been widly cultivated for over a hundred years, the plant is naturally occurring and remained present in the environment in coffee growing regions.

In terms of flavor quality, excelsa has been reported as resembling Arabica coffee from in Ethiopia. Most of the plants being grown today (and the coffee being produced) are the excelsa variant of liberica with smaller seeds than the traditional liberica type. Contemporary assessments for liberica indicate a high levels of natural sweetness (a positive attribute for coffee quality), a rich, bold mouthfeel, low acidity and flavor notes of chocolate, jackfruit and other tropical and non-tropical fruits. 

Renewed interest in excelsa coffee is now clearly evident by the fact that you can buy it online. In Uganda, at least 200 farms are now growing excelsa, and this number is growing due to farmers shifting from farming robusta to farming mixed robusta–excelsa or farming excelsa only. The adaption of excelsa has been farmer-led rather than being based on advice from external sources (like seeds sold by agricultural congomerates) or agents; and excelsa is an indigenous plant of Uganda and South Sudan, where it occurs naturally in low elevation forests bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

In a changing climate, excelsa offers the potential to grow commercially viable, and perhaps higher-value, coffee under much warmer conditions (and at lower elevations) than Arabica and may offer improved climate resiliency over robusta. However, the history of coffee farming shows that a coffee species is only likely to come into major use in response to drastic disruptions in the supply chain. A changing climate may prove to be that disruption. At least coffee will be able to adapt to climate change. 

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