Climate change coffee swap

27 June 2017

Interview with 

Alex Summers, Cambridge University Botanic Gardens

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New research out of London’s Kew Gardens warns that climate change will significantly affect where we can grow coffee in the future, which may well affect the flavour. Georgia Mills went along to the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens, with Glasshouse Supervisor Alex Summers, to hunt for some coffee beans...

Alex - The whole bit back there is just coffee, so this is all coffee here.

Georgia - There’s no beans on show at the moment. I guess it’s the wrong time of year?

Alex - Absolutely. Our coffee tends to produce flowers and fruits later in the year and, as you can see at the moment, we have nothing.

Georgia - But you do have a coffee machine?

Alex - We do indeed have a coffee machine. I think like all institutions, many days are run on the back of coffee.

Georgia - You have coffee beans growing here at the botanic gardens. We just saw them, they’re in a greenhouse. They can only grow in certain places in the world?

Alex - Absolutely. Coffee in itself is what we think of as a tropical crop; that means that it can grow in latitudes between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Even within those latitudes they’ll still be areas that it can and can’t grow. So if you can imagine within the tropics, you might get the really hot lowland plains, and you might get those cooler more montane environments. In the situation of those cooler more montane environments the temperatures never get to quite the extremes that you would see in the lowlands. Coffee, in itself, is from the Ethiopian highlands and they’re a cooler tropical environment.

So let’s go with a Colombian coffee…

Georgia - So despite spilling half of it, Alex brewed up a rather excellent cup of Colombian coffee. But will this soon be a luxury of the past? Because a paper out in Nature Genetics has used modeling to predict that 39 to 59% of our current coffee growing areas could be rendered unsuitable by climate change…

Alex - I think this is an interesting thing to bring up because I think it’s the case for many plants from many environments. The fact is that climate change in happening, it’s coming along, and that affects the temperature environment in which many of these plants grow. So, in the case of coffee, we’ve spoken that it’s from these more montane parts of the tropics. What that means is as temperatures rise, it has a tendency to force coffee itself out of the locations that we tend to find it. Probably higher up the mountain ranges or the bits of the Ethiopian highlands that it’s found in. If that means you’re a coffee farmer, it might mean that some of the areas you're currently using to farm become unsuitable environmentally. Probably become too hot or probably have a climate which changes enough that you’re unable to grow the coffee there to the same extent, and to the same efficiency that you’ve been growing it there previously.

Georgia - What does this mean for the future of our coffee supply?

Alex - The thing with climate change is that it’s not even. Whilst certain habitats will become unfit for coffee there will be other ones that open up that will become fit for coffee. I think what essentially this paper is highlighting is that there are many areas that we are going to lose for coffee growers, but there will be many areas that will then become available for coffee to be cultivated in. I think what it highlights is in this changing world is that we’re going to have to be flexible to changing our cultivation practices, and also to make land available where it’s required to grow coffee. But it does mean that we have to be cautious to look after what we’ve got so the good agricultural land we’ve go we have to look after. Being sustainable with our practices so that we don’t ruin areas so that we can’t move into them in the future. Also, for those bits of natural habitat and environment that we’ve still got left that hold huge diversity that can be bred into these crops to change them in the future as we need to that we don’t absolutely destroy that either. So I think that it’s a pragmatic approach.

Georgia - So there is hope for the humble coffee bean. It may move location, which can affect the flavour and the prices, but if we’re careful with our practices, we will still be able to get hold of it. But what about the growers?

Alex - If you’re a local farmer and you farm a particular area, and that area then becomes unsuitable for coffee cultivation, it’s not as simple for you to pick up your land, move it to a new suitable location and go ahead. So I think in these cases here we also have to be aware of the effects it has at a local scale. Not just at the national scale where we can say positively that we’ll be able to move the coffee cultivation from one location to another, we also need to understand how it’s going to affect the local communities who depend on that for a livelihood.

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