Shifting Growing Regions: Climate Change and Fair Trade Crops
To power steam engines, initially, and then power plants, automobiles, aircraft, lawn mowers, Sea-Doos—the list goes on—we’ve burned fossil fuels and spewed aerosols and greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, into our atmosphere.
This started during the Industrial Revolution, and temperatures have been climbing ever since. Across the globe, they’ve increased by at least 0.7 C, often more, creating a chain reaction: melting glaciers, rising seas, volatile weather.
Scientists agree that humans are the cause of climate change. Our fossil fuel emissions have altered, and continue to alter, the chemistry of the atmosphere, trapping warm air and stifling the earth’s cycles of heating and cooling. Warmer temperatures cause water to evaporate, yet warmer air holds more moisture, which in turn produces extreme precipitation. Now wet areas are wetter, and dry areas drier.
The experts also agree on something else: Climate change is making indelible impacts on agriculture and food supplies. As the 21st century plods on, more of us will feel these impacts. They’ve already been felt by the people who grow three of the most popular fair trade crops: coffee, cocoa, and bananas. Going forward, things will only get worse unless we can collectively change our course. For a glimpse of how climate change is altering the way we grow food, let’s take a look at each of these crops.
Sensitive to temperatures, hot and cold alike, and rainfall, arabica coffee thrives at high elevations in tropical climates. Almost every smallholder arabica crop is rain irrigated.
Coffee’s key growing regions straddle the equator, and include parts of Africa, Central and South America, and Southeast Asia. Collectively this is known as the Coffee Belt.
Along the belt, temperatures are climbing. In Guatemala, they’re predicted to increase by 2.0 to 2.5 C by 2050. In Ethiopia, by 1.1 to 3.1 C by 2060. Indeed, since 1960, the East African country has already experienced an increase of 1.3 C.
What happens to a coffee tree when temperatures rise? Once the mercury exceeds 23 C, coffee fruit doesn’t ripen properly; the result is poorer quality berries. When the mercury hits 30 C on a regular basis, coffee trees experience limited growth and even leaf loss. Changes to precipitation also have negative effects: Excess water limits a tree’s ability to photosynthesize.
In addition, pests that afflict coffee trees tend to enjoy balmier conditions. The coffee berry borer has in recent years shifted to higher elevations, expanding its range and destroying more coffee.
Excess rain makes trees vulnerable to leaf rust, a fungal infection that earlier this decade destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of coffee in Central America. While past leaf rust cases were limited to farms at lower altitude, the most recent outbreaks affected higher altitudes as well.
“It’s a cocktail of climate extremes,” says Monika Firl, Director of Sustainability at CoopCoffees, “that is wreaking havoc on coffee, as well as other crops. Leaf rust is just one example of illnesses that can affect quality and yield. Depending on severity, these diseases can kill the trees. And if that’s the case, farmers fall deeper into crisis because it takes three years for newly planted trees to bear fruit.”
According to studies, it’s possible that arabica coffee could cease to exist in the wild before this century ends; if you’re a high school student reading this, worst-case scenarios suggest that wild arabica could disappear in your lifetime. It would be a loss of important diversity and a grim harbinger of our planet’s future.
From an economic perspective, shrinking growing regions would be devastating for smallholder coffee farmers, who grow most of the world’s arabica.
What are the solutions? Move farms to higher altitudes to escape warm weather? That’s not as easy as it sounds. “When a property becomes prime real estate,” Firl says, “it’s not the vulnerable who get access to it.”
“These are solutions for traders,” Firl says. “If coffee’s growing regions are shrinking, where are the farmers going to go? I’ve seen farmers broken by climate change, broken by stress. They’ve gone broke and never returned to coffee.”
“Others rise to the occasion, innovating, diversifying, and proving themselves to be the example.”
Firl explains how a co-operative of Honduran farmers traded caldo bordelés, a fungicide that contains copper sulfates and hard metals (and yet is okay by organic standards), for a homemade tea of efficient micro-organisms (EMs), “a sort-of kombucha,” Firl says. The caldo bordelés kills leaf rust fungus, but at the same time, damages the beneficial fungi and bacterial biota on the leaf cover. In contrast, the EM tea helps trees build up their immune systems, and improve their capacity to fight damaging fungi and viruses.
“It starts with understanding nature,” Firl says. “These farmers adapt their practices to harness nature rather than combat it.”
It’s solutions like these that can help abate the burden of climate change for farmers. While conventional agriculture develops solutions around products, chemical inputs that farmers require more and more of every year, farmers on the ground are finding solutions that are effective, replicable, and inexpensive.
In the forests of West Africa, two million farmers grow almost three quarters of the world’s cocoa. The region leads not only in production, but also in quality, and the global chocolate industry leans on Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and other West African countries to meet demands.
Like coffee, cocoa thrives in specific climatic conditions: It needs warm weather, humid air, and precipitation—ideally between 1,000 to 2,500 mm every year.
Also like coffee, cocoa’s prime growing region is experiencing climate change–related weather shifts. Research shows that temperatures have been climbing and will continue to do so. Climate models predict that dry season temperatures and water availability will increase and decrease respectively. Drought bumps up the rate of cocoa tree mortality and limits yields.
To deal with these challenges, cocoa farms are on the move. Workers and farmers migrate into new areas, and instead of continuing a tradition of agroforestry, where cocoa grows among other crops under the shade of canopy trees, forests are being levelled to accommodate full-sun plantations.
Because such plantations deliver fast growth and quick yields, they’re attractive. They’re also far less sustainable, both economically and environmentally, as high-shade agroforestry operations produce more profit over the long term, while at the same time protecting biodiversity and sensitive forest ecosystems.
In the coming years, shifting cocoa production could cause further deforestation in West Africa, not only in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, but also Liberia and Cameroon, countries with large, intact forest reserves.
To prevent the loss of forests, which help soak up carbon emissions, cocoa production needs to return to its agroforestry roots. According to research, use of shade trees can reduce temperatures by 4 degrees, a factor that can help buffer the effects of climate change. Shaded farms become microclimates of deep-root trees and shrubs that hold and cycle water, improving resiliency against drought.
As consumers, we should look for chocolate products from brands that encourage farmers to adopt sustainable agricultural techniques that build resiliency and increase the quality and volume of yields. When you buy products certified by Fairtrade, farmer co-operatives receive a premium they can use to develop business and community infrastructure and provide training on land reclamation, improved farming methods, and more.
Unlike coffee and cocoa, bananas like warmer temperatures, and experts predict that climate change will expand the fruit’s growing regions. Unfortunately, certain diseases, for example, the fungus black sigatoka, or black leaf streak, can become more aggressive with hotter weather, as higher temperatures accelerate spore germination. To battle disease, farm operators will need to use more fungicides and other inputs whose costs won’t easily fit in an already narrow profit margin. This likely means less for workers.
Another downside of warm temperatures is increased water demand; bananas need a lot of water distributed over the growing season. When they go without, yields and quality suffer. Growing bananas in warmer locales will require more water, tapping into an already shrinking supply of fresh water. When bananas grow in less than ideal water conditions, leaf size is limited, and this results in smaller, older-looking fruit and premature ripening.
Atmospheric transformations associated with climate change—increased evaporation and humidity—can bring about more volatile weather, including higher winds. In the tropics, storms can have a huge impact on agricultural operations, especially for bananas, whose shallow roots are easily plucked from the soil by raging winds.
A Canadian Perspective
Meanwhile, here in Canada, our weather also continues to change. Since 1948, temperatures have increased from coast to coast by an estimated average of 1.7 C. Across northern Canada that average is 2.3 C. Expect less snow and a lot more rain.
To halt this transformation, here and abroad, we need to act now. We need to eliminate carbon emissions as soon as possible, ideally by 2050, and significantly reduce greenhouse gas before 2100. This would be a best-case scenario, one that sees global temperatures rise by only 2 C above pre-industrial levels—the target of the Paris Agreement.
Unfortunately, at this stage we’re not even close. Reports suggest we will fall short of the targets set by the Paris Agreement, as well as many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals related to protecting the climate and ending poverty and hunger.
Choosing Fairtrade coffee, cocoa, and bananas is a good start, a small step that brings real benefits to farmers and workers. But we need to do more. We need to collectively shed our dependence on fossil fuels. Right now there are about one million species threatened with extinction. Who can say how many will be threatened 10 years from now? Or 100? Perhaps certain varietals of coffee, cocoa, and bananas will be on that list. In the case of coffee, wild arabica is nearing the fringes.
While the loss of biodiversity is a certain tragedy, climate change is more than just an environmental issue; it’s a moral one, where the livelihoods and food security of millions of small-scale farmers are at risk.
Author: Erik Johnson is managing editor of Fair Trade Magazine.