Will coffee prices climb with climate change?

Coffee growers could have to move to higher altitudes — meaning higher prices but maybe tastier brews.

By Ezra Fieser — Special to GlobalPost

Published: September 14, 2009 06:30 ET

“As a scientist it pains me to say it, but the conditions for coffee growing in many of the highland areas, where the best coffee is grown, could be better for coffee in the coming years,” said Edwin Castellanos, a scientist for Guatemala’s Universidad Del Valle, who is part of a team conducting the regional study.

Governments in the region have long urged coffee growers to move to higher elevations, where finer coffee can be grown.

“The coffee grown at those altitudes could have higher yields and it’s likely that the producers will be able to take advantage in the short term by growing those high quality coffees more abundantly,” he said.

However, less land is available at those altitudes. According to Anacafe, the Guatemalan coffee-growing association, only 2.5 percent of Guatemalan land is suitable for growing coffee, producing some 495 million pounds of beans. About 150 million pounds of that coffee was grown at elevations of lower than 4,500 feet above sea level, lands that are likely to be hit by climate change.

The farmers at Santa Anita, which sits about 4,000 feet above sea level, consider the changing temperatures a serious threat to their way of life.

“If we have to pick all the coffee in October and November, we won’t have enough help because our children will still be in school,” said Mariola Cifuentes, a coffee grower in the cooperative. “And if we can’t pick the coffee, it will fall [off the plant]. And we can’t afford that.”

Cifuentes said the increase in temperatures has led to the spread of pests and of a fungus known as koleroga. As a result, the farmers — who raise Fair Trade- and organic-certified coffee — have had to spray fungicides and pesticides more frequently.

“Dealing with these changes by spraying more fungicides or pesticides, because they are organic, is already costing these farmers more,” Huerta said.

Scientists said the problem could be worse in the long-term.

Farmers could combat some of the changes in humidity and temperature by using shade trees. In some cases, the trees could be trimmed to release trapped humidity. In others, more shade trees could be planted to cut down on the sun and heat that reaches the beans, Castellanos said.

But adapting their farms to the changing climate will only last so long.

“It’s a problem of increased extremes,” Castellanos said. “Farmers in these regions will see hotter temperatures, longer periods of drought, more heavy downfalls, which can damage crops, and more storms.”

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