By Emma Sage, SCAA Coffee Science Manager
In late April 2015, I was privileged to join a scientific field expedition of a climate resiliency project, led by coffee botanist Dr. Aaron Davis, Senior Research Leader of Plant Resources at Kew Gardens in London. I spent my leg of the trip, which was about a week in length, traveling with Dr. Davis to several different growing regions in Ethiopia. We collected climate data, liaised with project stakeholders, and interviewed coffee producers.
Perhaps the most striking scene we encountered on this field trip was in the Harrar C region of Oromia, Ethiopia, on our way to a coffee farm to collect climate data. We passed a large plantation, reportedly very productive in past years, that was now deeply troubled. The majority of trees, stretching for kilometers along the road, were brown, dying, or dead. As far as the eye could see, under the shade trees the coffee plants stood like skeletons. Dead and dying, most of the plants were leafless and totally without blossoms or cherries. What did this mean? What symptom was this and which problem did it indicate? There was no way to know without looking at the local climate data and talking to area coffee producers. In a way, this experience drove home why it is so important that we as an industry support scientists doing fundamental research, including the critical component of fieldwork.
What is a climate resiliency project and why should the coffee industry be interested in it? The Kew study was a Strategic Climate Institutions Program (SCIP) project, funded by the SCIP Fund, which has been underway since spring 2014. The SCIP Fund is designed to build Ethiopia’s capacity to cope with climate change across the public, private, and civil society sectors, and to respond to the challenges of transitioning to a climate-resilient green economy.
So how do a botanist and a team of Geographic Information System (GIS) mappers fit into this? The Kew GIS team has experts in mapping and climate modeling, which means projecting climate into the future with very specific regional accuracy. When botanists partner with such mappers and modelers, they can use climate information to relate to specific growing conditions and stressors of plants. Of course, we are talking about our favorite plant Coffea arabica.
This project is based on an assessment of the influence of climate change on coffee-producing areas and wild coffee forests. The climate change assessment is founded on a combination of activities, including high-resolution mapping, extensive fieldwork, farmer interviews, and climate monitoring. The project will be complete in fall 2015. Due to the short duration of the project, the team has had to work very hard in order to complete all the work necessary, including traveling 25,000 kilometers (over 15,000 miles) by car around the coffee regions of Ethiopia.
Dr. Davis and his team have analyzed over 30 years of data from government climate stations in Ethiopia in order to inform their future prediction models. They note that since the 1960s, there has been a mean annual temperature increase of 0.28°C per decade, shorter wet seasons, and an increasing number of hot days. Other work this lab has done has predicted a very negative impact on Ethiopian wild coffee forests. They are now working to understand the effects on cultivated coffee, and also opportunities for growth and resilience in Ethiopia.
Climate change is already affecting the coffee landscape in Ethiopia. We witnessed this profoundly in an anecdotal way while doing fieldwork in April. However, that was only one observation in one year. A long-term, deep scientifically-based understanding of which regions are favorable for cultivating coffee— which are vulnerable, which are on the edge, and which are simply not suitable—is needed to ensure the future of coffee production in this region. What will be done with this information after it is collected is another story, although necessary to keep in mind as relevant and thorough scientists. Right now, a slow, progressive climate change is occurring all over eastern Africa. This shift has already begun and it is already impacting coffee growing regions. Davis’s team verified this as they have traveled to every coffee area of the country.
You may ask, what is the difference between “wild” and “cultivated” coffee in Ethiopia? It varies by region; in some places the difference is small, in others great. In fact, there are regions of Ethiopia that have traditionally been too dry for coffee production, which are now being established as irrigated agricultural systems. Other regions are speckled with small coffee producers who keep less than one hectare of coffee, and often less than 20 plants total. Some are in gardens, others are in forested areas, and some are truly semi-forest coffee that have been cultivated in this way for generations. All of these farming methods are included in the Kew research project.
When I arranged to shadow a field expedition with Dr. Davis and his team, I didn’t know what to expect. In fact, I got more than I bargained for! His “team” was one GIS mapping expert, Tim Wilkinson, who became ill on the first day I joined their mission and ultimately had to return to London. This meant that I was de facto promoted to “on deck field technician.” Lucky for me, this work mainly consists of downloading data from remote locations, slogging with computer gear into hot and often wet places, and the possibility of holding back-up data.
With Dr. Davis, I visited farms and lodges in the Oromia and Harrar, Bale Mountains, Harenna forest and Doma Mela, Yirgalem and Sidamo, and Yirgecheffe regions. At all of these locations, we collected either a small data logger or visited a larger climate station that had been previously set up by the Kew team. Davis and his team had installed small, relatively inexpensive climate data loggers in places that were more risky or a weather station could not be secured. These loggers measured air temperature and humidity. Air temperature and humidity act as proxies for the entire climate system. The team can use this data to understand weather patterns and trends, such as when rain started (humidity up, temperature down) and stopped (humidity down, temperature up). Seasonality of rainfall is extremely important for coffee. It dictates flowering initiation and bud setting, fruit maturation and development. The larger weather stations logged soil moisture at three depths, rainfall, temperature, solar radiance, humidity, and soil temperature.
From Yirgalem, we took a day trip to visit a coffee farm in Yirgacheffe proper to collect and replace another data logger on a small coffee garden/farm. It had rained, so we stopped the car mid-way up the hill to the farm and walked through the red slippery mud, slowly collecting a flock of children and other interested onlookers. We met a friendly group of people and eventually identified the exact place where Dr. Davis had left the data logger the previous year. The farm was small, about a quarter hectare (~0.6 acres) and reportedly produced about 400 kg of dry cherry from roughly 170 plants during the last harvest.
Even the farmer eventually showed up, and we were able to piece together an interview with a local student acting as a translator. Dr. Davis asked about the weather, rainfall pattern, flowering time on the farm, harvest time, and how they process and sell their cherries. This farmer elaborated on some cultivation practices he used based on advice from Ethiopian Institution of Agricultural Research (EIAR) advisors. He told us how he used a fertilizer/ mulch with ash and leaves to cover the ground around his coffee trees. He reported that the particular shade tree he used has a growth pattern that protected coffee flowers from harsh rainfall that could disrupt fruit set.
This is the sort of information that cannot be collected in any other way but fieldwork and interviews, which is an essential part of the Kew Gardens project that will serve to build practical and local information about growing practices, agricultural techniques, milling stations, and available resources. Such information has never been readily available to the coffee community in an organized way, but this project will change that.
The two products of this project will be a coffee-sector climate change strategy for Ethiopia and a coffee atlas. The strategy will be a policymaker-oriented short publication highlighting the results of the study to immediately inform government, policy makers, and NGOs about key areas of vulnerability, where the coffee sector is threatened, as well as where there are new opportunities for coffee growth and production, and where intervention could be of great impact. The coffee atlas will be a hands-on tool for everyone (including those of you who have wondered why there was never a good road atlas for Ethiopia) which will include practical things like roads and all coffee regions, but also climate maps of each region, current climate by region, differentiations between some of the coffee areas via climate and satellite information, some general information about each harvest period, cultivation techniques, and processing methods. Once finalized, the analyses will be compared with information gathered from farmers and producers, existing weather station data and climate monitoring equipment that we have placed the story of the drought-wracked within coffee farms across Ethiopia.
The drought-wracked coffee farm that we passed in Oromia is only a very small anecdote symptomatic of a larger problem. Despite the fact that Dr. Davis and his climate-change team are working to predict the future of climate changes in Ethiopia, they are inevitably faced with the glaring actuality that it is already taking place. We witnessed first-hand climate change in the form of heat and drought over the course of this trip, and the data over the past 30 years analyzed by the Kew team confirms what we felt on the ground: climate change is already impacting coffee production in Ethiopia. Not only is wild coffee at risk, but the cultivated coffee that is known and loved all over the world faces an uncertain future as well. We await the coffee atlas for more information about the future growing areas of Ethiopian coffees.
Want more information on the work that is going on at Kew Gardens and with Dr. Davis? See more about the project.
Or read Dr. Davis’ work on wild coffee in Ethiopia.
Or, see Dr. Davis’ 2013 SCAA Symposium talk on his fascinating work.
Emma Sage is SCAA’s coffee science manager. Before moving into the coffee industry, she completed degrees in ecology and botany, and dabbled in the wine in dustry. She enjoys learn ing all there is to know about the science of coffee (and more importantly, sharing it with you).