In the highlands between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, the perfect climate conditions were once found: not too hot, not too cold, not too much rain, not too little, with extreme weather days far and few between. And it was here that two Goldilocks-like species grew abundantly: coffee and chocolate (cocoa).
These optimal growing conditions, however, are now on the move. In their wake, drier, warmer and more volatile climates are disrupting livelihoods in countries such as Brazil, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.
For example, in Ethiopia, temperatures are on average 1.3°C warmer vs. pre-industrial levels and rainfall has declined 15-20% since 1970. Pests previously unable to survive in the country are also taking hold: before 1960 there was no evidence of coffee berry borers (miniature bean-destroying beetles), but by 2003 they had become widespread.1
Cocoa-producing Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana are experiencing similar changes. Beetles are less of a problem, but in their place a fungus now referred to as pod rot is pervasive. One variety alone now causes a 20-30% decline in yields annually.2
Overall, this shift in conditions is pushing the so-called ‘Bean Belt’ up into higher altitudes and out into Northern latitudes. Whereas the optimal altitude for Ethiopian coffee once peaked at 2,200 metres above sea-level, today it has reached well above 3,000 metres.3 New growing regions are also appearing on the scene. For cocoa production, Liberia and Cameroon look increasingly attractive. For coffee, growers China’s Yunnan province have adopted arabica, while Californian along the southern coast are cultivating up-and-coming varieties, such as ‘Bourbon’ and ‘Caturra Rojo’.4
Moving production, however, is also not a permanent solution against the backdrop of continued rapid changes in climate. Rising star growing regions today will soon join the ranks of retired regions of the climate past.
The world’s largest coffee retailers are well-aware of this threat. Starbucks founder and former CEO Howard Shultz stated in relation to Starbucks’ investment in climate resiliency research, ‘Make no mistake…climate change is going to play a bigger role in affecting the quality and integrity of coffee.’5
In response to JAB Holding Company’s strategy of acquiring coffee retailers, the Wall Street Daily reported:
Preserving coffee and chocolate production over the long-term requires a systems response from all angles: (1) draw down carbon as quickly as possible; (2) counteract changes in climate through small and large scale permaculture enabled by Environmental Intelligence technology; (3) protect vulnerable forest areas through conservation strategies; (4) meet growing demand by shifting towards (a) modern production methods and (b) climate-empowered species or regions.
JustDiggit is re-greening Africa’s hydrological corridor, which runs through the region where coffee and chocolate grow. Harnessing environmental intelligence from satellites and drones, the team first selects sites along the corridor. For each site, they then apply ancient water-harvesting techniques (digging holes and planting trees) in order to bring more moisture into the air while also enabling rainwater to infiltrate the ground again. This jumpstarts the return of native vegetation. As roots of all sizes continue to develop, the aquifer, or underground water basin, fills and rises, further supporting a diversity of life in a positive cycle. Over time, this system develops into the region’s outdoor air-conditioning.
Microbes, including yeast, lactic acid bacteria and acetic acid bacteria, have long been the magic workers responsible for converting cacao into chocolate, bringing softness and complexity to its flavour. Today, modern producers have the potential to take microbial labour to the next level by biologically engineering yeast and bacteria to produce the molecules needed to make chocolate directly. The impossible Burger of chocolate is on the horizon.
Carob pods, grown on carbon-absorbing desert trees, rival cocoa in taste and texture, offering a naturally sweeter and smoother alternative. Likewise, dandelions, an invasive species capable of thriving under the harshest of conditions, have roots which when roasted make for a rich and rejuvenating brew, albeit without the caffeine.
Agroforestry practices, such as those employed by The Nature Conservancy in Brazil, harness biodiversity, our greatest defence against rapid changes in climate, to build resiliency into coffee and chocolate-growing areas. The shade of larger trees cools the crops, while complementary root systems bring vitality and nutrients back into the soil. Balanced ecosystems in turn are less vulnerable to pests.