Behind the Research to Save Coffee From Severe Weather Conditions

Innovative breeding programs and a new international wave of scientific research are helping ensure coffee farmers will be able to adapt to challenging climate conditions and meet a rising global demand for coffee in the coming years.

The cutting-edge science push is spearheaded by World Coffee Research (WCR), a nonprofit organization founded by the international coffee industry to ensure high-quality coffee and environmental health for future generations.

At Community Coffee Company, we have forged strong relationships with growers across the globe in coffee-producing communities in Mexico, Colombia, Rwanda and more. As part of our company’s commitment to global responsibility, we are a gold sponsor of World Coffee Research and a strong supporter of the organization’s efforts to ensure farmers will be able to thrive in the face of a changing climate. Here’s how the organization is helping.

An International Challenge

Nearly half of current coffee production comes from countries predicted to lose more than 60 percent of their suitable coffee areas by 2050, but climate change is already affecting coffee production as growing regions around the world become hotter and drier.

For example, In 2012, a massive outbreak of coffee leaf rust — a devastating fungal disease that damages and ultimately destroys the coffee tree — severely affected the industry in Central America, putting an estimated 1.7 million people out of work in the region. Researchers believe the overall rise of temperatures and the associated weather patterns created a more favorable environment for the disease, leading to the widespread outbreak.

The scope of the problem is vast. The latest scientific research estimates that by 2050, 79 percent of currently suitable coffee areas will face hottest-month maximums of 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), with more than half of coffee land facing hottest-month maximums above 32 degrees Celsius. This represents a considerable challenge, given that Arabica coffee’s, the coffee beans found in premium coffees, optimal average annual temperature range is a cool 18 to 21 degrees Celsius.

Breeding Programs

The creation of new coffee varieties more resilient to climate change is critical for the future of coffee. By leveraging the latest breakthroughs in coffee genetics and working in collaboration with breeding programs in multiple countries, WCR is helping develop the next generation of coffee varieties to meet emerging climate challenges. 

The organization has set its sights on climate-smart breeding that produces plants that can cope with temperatures as high as 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit). Last year, WCR joined a major coffee-breeding effort funded by the European Union to address the challenges posed by climate change through coffee breeding, and it has set up its own breeding programs around the world.

It’s also focusing on agroforestry — growing coffee under shade — by researching and developing varieties that can thrive without full sun.

Worldwide Research Centers

Like the coffee industry itself, WCR’s efforts have been truly international. In its first five years, the organization has built an unprecedented international network of research trials. WCR has established two breeding hubs in Central America and East Africa, while creating a plan for the global conservation of wild coffee species for future breeding.

It has also launched a global network of on-farm trials to study multiple varieties and their profitability, and it has produced a technical manual for agronomists for holistic management of coffee rust.

These efforts are helping to close a research gap in the world of coffee, which for decades lagged behind the scientific progress achieved by other agricultural industries. At Community Coffee, we believe this vital research and development holds the key to preserving coffee for future generations.