Adapting Coffee Production for Climate Resilience, with Catherine Kiwuka

Close-up photo of a pile of dark brown roasted coffee beans.

Climate change and increasing demand for coffee has driven research in Uganda to seek sustainable solutions. Image credit: Via NickyPe on Pixabay.

Script by:  Jessalyn Fong  |  Audio by: Hannah Kaminker |  Blurb by: Ashley Carter

The Environmental Impacts of Coffee Production

For most of us, coffee is a part of our daily lives. 62% of Americans drink coffee every day, with 7 in 10 drinking coffee every week. In 2024, the coffee market amounted to over $86.7 billion in gross revenue, with numbers only predicted to rise. Americans consume over 400 million cups of coffee each day, leading many to wonder of the harms of such rapid consumption. Unfortunately, for coffee-lovers, the reality is that coffee has a poor environmental footprint. The average total harvested area from coffee production is over 11 million hectares – an area larger than Scotland. Coffee production is associated with various environmental consequences such as water pollution, deforestation, soil degradation, and decreased biodiversity, to name a few. Traditionally, coffee beans are produced in the shade of trees, but due to heightened demand, many farmers are beginning to relocate production to sun grown coffee, which requires large scale forest removal. Every cup of coffee consumed destroys roughly one square inch of rainforest, making coffee the leading cause of forest destruction. Not only is coffee production extremely land intensive, but just one singular cup requires 140 liters of water to produce.

Coffee production not only contributes to environmental changes, but is especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. By 2050, predictions reveal a vast decrease in coffee-suitable land, leading to worldwide decreases in yields. The consequences of climate change on coffee production can trigger changes in soil, water, crop, and nutrient management of the land. Interestingly, sustainable coffee systems may provide favorable ecological services, such as maintaining soil fertility, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration. Thus, it has been proposed that making coffee production more resilient will not only help in adapting to a changing climate, but can reduce the environmental consequences of this industry, even promoting positive environmental benefits. 

How can coffee production become more sustainable?

The two main strains of coffee produced globally are Arabica and Robusta, both of which are extremely vulnerable to climate change due to rising temperatures, altered rainfall patterns, and increased incidence of pests and diseases. Such climate impacts could lead to reduced coffee yields, affecting the quality and availability of coffee for consumers, and putting farmers’ livelihoods at risk. The impact of climate change will be particularly noticeable in the coffee belt, the region around the equator where most coffee production occurs. In this area, even small changes in temperature and rainfall patterns can have adverse effects on coffee production, decreasing yields.

Liberica coffee has been proposed as one alternative to conventionally utilized coffee strains, as it withstands climate change-induced heat, long-term drought and disease. Farmers across the world are looking to reintroduce Liberica as the common crop plant used to sustain the global coffee industry and mitigate the adverse effects of climate change. Excelsa coffee has also been considered due to its high yields and heightened conversion ratio from pulp to clean coffee, with minimal mechanical and labor-intensive activities required. Farmers across the coffee belt have begun to implement such changes themselves as they are first-hand facing the negative effects of climate change.

Potential Benefits of Alternative Coffee Strains 

Coffee varieties such as Liberica are being utilized in countries like Uganda, one of the world’s largest coffee exporters, as a means of adapting to the effects of a changing climate. Hybrid coffee varieties have potential for increasing welfare and enhancing resilience of smallholder farmers against climate change. With an expected doubling in coffee demand by 2050, it is necessary that more sustainable methods are adopted in order to respond to adverse climate consequences. Hybrid varieties thus provide a solution as they can increase productivity by enhancing yields and are less vulnerable to stressful environments. 

Ongoing Research is Needed

There remains a lack of research on the potential improvements such coffee varieties can have when applied to a larger scale. Furthermore, more research needs to be done to determine the optimal temperature ranges for precise yield levels. In areas with high production yields, more on the ground work is needed in order to support sustainable development of coffee. There is large uncertainty in climate projection data, socioeconomic factors and interactions which influence coffee plants and potential yield capacity. Furthermore, the initial concerns mentioned in regards to the environmental harms of coffee production still remain. 

About our guest

Catherine Kiwuka works with the Plant Genetic Resources Center of the National Agricultural Research Organization of Uganda, researching climate resilient coffee varieties in Africa to withstand climate impacts. In order to sustain livelihoods, resilient coffee systems can both protect local smallholders, and improve environmental quality, paving a way for a more sustainable future.

Further Reading


Transcript

Ethan: I’m Ethan Elkind, and you’re listening to Climate Break. Climate solutions in a hurry. Today’s proposal: planting climate-resilient coffee varieties in Africa to sustain the global industry. Catherine Kiwuka is a coffee specialist at the National Agricultural Research Organization of Uganda, a major exporter of coffee.

Ms. Kiwuka: First of all, coffee production in Uganda is mainly rain-fed. So when drought hits us due to climate change, you are assured that millions of households will be suffering because of that. We need a sustainable and a resilient coffee system because of the importance coffee, uh, has in our livelihoods as Ugandans. 

Ethan: Farmers in Uganda are now turning to native, more climate-resilient coffee varieties like Coffea liberica, also known as Excelsa coffee.

Ms. Kiwuka: A few farmers in Uganda are growing–have been growing–this coffee species for years. It’s proving to be a drought tolerant species and also more tolerant to the common pest and–pests and diseases in the coffee system. 

Ethan: To establish Excelsa coffee as a global coffee crop, Catherine says researchers are now identifying the best genotypes of the plant. 

Ms. Kiwuka: Efforts are underway to see how we can introduce adapted coffee species. And when we prove this, we can work with other regions to support a sustainable and resilient coffee sector. 

Ethan: To learn more about climate-resilient coffee, visit climatebreak.org

Adapting Coffee Production for Climate Resilience, with Catherine Kiwuka