Skip to content

🍏 "Good to the Last Drop? Coffee & Climate"

What About Water?

Photo by Mike Kenneally / Unsplash

Host: Jay Famiglietti
Guest: Dr. Aaron Davis | Senior Research Leader Plant Resources | Royal Botanic Gardens
Category: 🍏 Sustainable Food

Podcast’s Essential Bites:

[2:58] “The coffee family in general, which is mainly a tropical family, is a really good indicator of forest health and climate change. It doesn't take much to push them out of those niches and those very narrow climate envelopes. […] Coffee's a tree. So it not only has to take those weather events of that year, but over many, many years. So although it's a short lived tree, let's say 25-30 years, it still has to be in the ground and suffer all the consequences of severe weather perturbations.”

[3:54] “We have in the wild 131 species. And we drink really just two, Arabica and Robusta. Arabica is a cool tropical species and is rather sensitive to increasing temperatures. Robusta, on the other hand, which has wider distribution across tropical Africa in its natural state, is more heat tolerant than Arabica, but likes to have even soil moisture. So it's more sensitive to changes in precipitation and shortages of precipitation.”

[5:01] “If we went back 100 years, the coffee crop portfolio would be broader than it is today. So many more species were in commerce towards the end of the 1800s. And once Robusta came into ascendancy at the end of the 1800s, early 1900s, the other species got left behind.”

[6:43] “We have been doing fine with just two species. They fulfilled our requirements. Arabica is our supreme quality coffee, […] the one that we really like to drink. Robusta, on the other hand, is used in espresso blends and an instant and together they fulfill […] the requirements of the global coffee sector. […] We wouldn't be having this discussion, if it were not for climate change. […] That is the game changer. The reason why we're looking at alternative species or reinvigorating some of those so called lost species, is the fact that we will need to broaden the number of crops that are available to farmers, so they're able to continue to grow coffee in the places that they've always grown coffee.”

[14:17] “We have a big focus on understanding the water requirements of coffee, particularly as we're seeing shifts in precipitation patterns, shifts in seasonality, reduction in the amount of precipitation. […] It's absolutely key. […] Some years ago, I remember a study saying that irrigated Robusta plants in Vietnam were receiving 1,000 liters per year. […] I think that's unacceptable. […] You're taking the water from a ground source in some cases and that has all sorts of implications for agriculture and natural vegetation in that area. So it's something that's not sustainable and in many areas is a serious issue.”

[17:04] “If you have water, you can grow coffee in California, Queensland, even now in the Mediterranean […]. But that's only possible with irrigation. […] You can achieve marvelous things with irrigation […]. But if you speak to farmers [in Africa], if they had water, they would be drinking it, using it for sanitation, or growing higher value crops. And I think the really important point here is coffee for many farmers is not a high value crop. It may be the crop that they depend on, but other crops have a higher value.”

[18:20] “There are options for irrigation. You can create ponds, lakes, and use that as an irrigation source. That's possible in many developed countries and some developing countries, but most farmers will tell you, there's simply not enough profit. There's not enough investment potential to even do any simple interventions, such as an irrigation pond. […] And when I say not possible, I'm talking about some of the key coffee producing areas of the world. We can't suddenly switch over to all irrigated, it's just impossible. […] Very much our focus is on rain-fed agriculture. “

[20:50] “We need to understand carbon requirements in the coffee value chain and do something about that. We also need to look at deforestation, which is also part of the whole carbon sequestration issue, and many other things […]. And I think there's easy gains to be made on transparent labeling, and making the buyer aware of what their purchasing choices mean. Are they buying coffee that causes deforestation? Or are they buying a coffee that's actually an agent of forest preservation, biodiversity, conservation, improvement of retention of carbon storage?”

Rating: 💧💧💧💧

🎙️ Full Episode: Apple | Spotify | Google
🕰️ 30 min | 🗓️ 03/02/2022
✅ Time saved: 28 min