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Study Shows Effect of Changing Climate Conditions on Colombia’s Coffee Production

For people who begin their day with a cup of coffee, there is a good chance that their morning beverage came from Colombia. The country is home to some of the finest Arabica beans and is the third-largest coffee producer in the world.

Federico Ceballos-Sierra surveys coffee plants at his family farm in Colombia.
Federico Ceballos-Sierra surveys coffee plants at his family farm in Colombia. Image Credit: College of College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois.

But in Colombia, climate change presents new difficulties to coffee production as it does to agricultural production throughout the world. Now, a new study performed by the University of Illinois has demonstrated that these effects differ widely based on where the coffee beans are cultivated.

Colombia is a large country with a very distinct geography. The Andes Mountains cross the country from its southwest to northeast corner. Colombian coffee is currently growing in areas with different altitude levels, and climate impacts will likely be very different for low altitude and high altitude regions.

Sandy Dall’Erba, Study Co-Author and Professor, Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, University of Illinois

Dall’Erba is also the director of the Regional Economics Applications Laboratory (REAL) at the University of Illinois. The study has been published in the Agricultural Systems journal.

Other research works on the future of coffee production have either regarded Colombia as a whole or targeted a few regions within the nation.

Dall’Erba and Federico Ceballos-Sierra, the study lead author who recently acquired a PhD from the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics (ACE), looked at coffee production and climate conditions for the whole country, which is split into 521 municipalities.

This increased level of in-depth data enables the researchers to detect major regional changes.

Colombia is not going to experience reduced productivity overall. But when we look into the impact across municipalities, we see many differences that get lost in the national average. That has important implications for coffee growers who live in one municipality versus another.

Federico Ceballos-Sierra, PhD, Study Lead Author, Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, University of Illinois

Ceballos-Sierra continued, “Low-altitude municipalities will be negatively affected by climate change, and thousands of growers and their families in these areas will see their livelihood jeopardized because productivity is likely to fall below their breakeven point by mid-century.”

The investigators looked at climate data between 2007 and 2013 across 521 coffee-producing municipalities in Colombia and assessed how precipitation and temperature have an impact on coffee production.

They later modeled predicted weather conditions between 2042 and 2061 and upcoming coffee production for every municipal region.

At the national level, the researchers predicted that there would be a 7.6% increase in productivity by 2061.

However, this prediction covers a broad margin of spatial variations, spanning from a 16% increase in high altitude areas (5,000 feet or 1,500 m above sea level) to an 8.1% decrease in low altitude areas.

Regions that are currently marginal for coffee production will benefit from rising temperatures, whereas regions that are presently prime locations for coffee production will be too dry or hot in the days to come.

Ceballos-Sierra grew up on a typical coffee farm in Colombia’s Tolima district and he has directly witnessed how production is affected by changing climate conditions.

My family’s farm is about 1,900 meters above sea level. Twenty years ago, people would consider that an upper marginal coffee growing area. But now we’re getting significant improvements in yield,” Ceballos-Sierra added.

In the meantime, coffee growers in lowland regions cotinine to witness decreasing yields, whereas pests that feed on coffee plants, like the coffee bean borer, are turning out to be more prevalent and aggressive. The study results have major implications for both policymakers and coffee growers.

According to Dall’Erba, “In the future, it will be more beneficial to grow coffee higher up in the mountains. So, for those who can afford it, buying land in those areas would be a good investment.”

The government might want to consider building infrastructures such as roads, water systems, electricity, and communication towers that would allow farmers in more elevated places to easily access nearby hubs and cities where they can sell their crops. We would expect more settlements and an increasing need for public services in those locations,” added Dall’Erba.

But since relocation is costly, it will not essentially be an option for the majority of the country’s 550,000 smallholder coffee growers, who would need to look for other ways to acclimatize. Farmers may be able to adopt new approaches, like increased use of forest shade, more frequent irrigation, or moving to different varieties of coffee or other crops.

Our research presents what we anticipate will happen 20 to 40 years from now, given current conditions and practices. Future studies can look into different adaptation strategies and their costs, and evaluate which options are best. Beyond the 40-year horizon we focus on, the prospects might be grimmer without adaptation.

Sandy Dall’Erba, Study Co-Author and Professor, Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, University of Illinois

Dall’Erba continued, “Production cannot keep moving to higher levels. Indeed, no mountain top is above 5,800 meters (18,000 feet) in Colombia.”

Policymakers in Colombia can also focus on supporting farmers who no longer will be able to make a living from growing coffee so that they can migrate to something else, added Ceballos-Sierra.

Looking into these regional estimates allows us to make predictions and provide policy suggestions. Specific place-tailored strategies should guide how coffee production adapts to future climate conditions in Colombia,” concluded Ceballos-Sierra.

According to the researchers, their study results may also be relevant to other coffee-growing sits, such as Puerto Rico and California in the United States.

The Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics and the Regional Economics Applications Laboratory (REAL) are in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois.

Journal Reference:

Ceballos-Sierraab, F & Dall’Erbac, S 2021) The effect of climate variability on Colombian coffee productivity: A dynamic panel model approach. Agricultural Systems.


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