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Cenicafé fights global warming

From the June 2014 issue.

Scientific efforts at Colombia's Cenicafé are proving that coffee farmers might stand a chance against the risks of climate change.

When it comes to headlines about climate change, the news isn’t getting any better.

This past March, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its fifth report, confirming that the world is doing a terrible job at cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Even if drastic measures are taken today, efforts will now be about limiting global warming rather than stopping it, with a gradual increase in the earth’s temperature an inevitable future.

In the world of coffee production, the effects of global warming have started to hit home. The rust disease outbreak that is severely affecting production in Central America is the most recent example. The outbreak has been attributed to higher temperatures, which caused increased rainfall in affected areas.

Colombian coffee farmers have largely been spared from this recent outbreak, with production exceeding 11.4 million 60-kilogram bags in the 12 months leading up to March 2014. This is a 40 per cent increase over the 8.1 million bags produced in the same period a year prior, a time that saw Central America’s production cut drastically.

With the likelihood of a poor crop from Brazil as a result of erratic weather, Colombia is now positioned as one of the most important producers of high quality Arabica in Latin America.

Colombia’s success story isn’t by chance. The tale is one of science winning against nature, proving that producing countries do have some power in protecting their crops from the risks of climate change.

“Climate change is an ongoing process, we know that the whole planet is warming up. The scenario from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel confirms that in 25 years, we’re going to be 2 degrees Celsius warmer,” says Fernando Gast, Director of Colombia’s Cenicafe, one of the world’s largest centres dedicated to coffee research, run by the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC).

At the heart of Cenicafe’s work on combatting coffee leaf rust has been the development of rust-resistant varieties. Today, around 2.8 billion coffee trees have been renovated and replanted with these varieties, efforts that have seen rust infestations drop from around 40 per cent in 2011, to less than 5 per cent today.

This work has been no easy feat, and is the result of 25 years worth of efforts and foresight into protecting the livelihoods of the more than half a million Colombian coffee farmers.

“Developing resistant varieties is a very long process,” explains Gast. The development work for the original rust resistant Colombian variety, which was released in the 1980s, began with 300 different coffee strains, as scientists filtered out the most resistant, productive, and highest quality. Working with strains of the Timor Hybrid, which is rust resistant, and the Caturra, which is of high taste quality, those 300 strains were filtered down to 100, then 50. It takes more than five  generations of crossbreeding for scientists to be confident that the desired attributes are present in the new variety.

In 2005, the second generation of the Colombian variety was released as Castillo, with different variations suited to the relevant weather conditions in different coffee growing regions. They are named after the different Cenicafe research stations.

Because developing new varieties, and getting them out to farmers, is such a long process, Gast says Cenicafe has to have the foresight to look far into the future of agriculture, and see what conditions future strains will be facing. Working with different materials, researchers are currently working on strains of the future, testing new varietals in extreme geographical and weather conditions around the country.

This work is helping the country determine whether climate change might affect its potential as a coffee grower. The first question, Gast says, about whether Colombia will be able to continue growing coffee, is about whether the country has enough geography to accommodate an increase in temperature. Fortunately, in this realm, he says the answer is yes.

“Colombia’s mountains are high enough, we can have the optimum growing conditions to grow coffee,” he says.

With the geography confirmed, Gast says Cenicafe’s main focus is to take a “worse case scenario” approach, in determining all the risk factors that could affect coffee growers in the future.

In addition to the inevitability of climate change, climate variability is a constant threat to Colombia’s coffee production. While climate change refers to the long-term increase of temperature, climate variability is dependant upon the climate phenomena that can affect the cyclical changes of weather.

The largest climate phenomenon that affects regional temperatures is the ENSO, a term that refers to the variations in the surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean. These flows are responsible for what is known as the La Nina and El Nino weather patterns.

“We need to be aware of these phenomena, and aware of what effects they have in coffee growing areas,” says Gast.

To record the temperature, solar radiation and precipitation variations in these areas, Cenicafe has established climatic stations in each distinct coffee growing region. These stations measure the parameters that are important to coffee growing.

“We’ve developing a weather grid to understand the information, and have a stronger database analysis,” says Gast. “We can now issue early warnings to growers in different areas regarding possible conditions that they will face in the near future.”

To make this information practical at the farmer level, Cenicafe has developed an app that will assist coffee growers in managing their farms according to these weather patterns. The app will be available to coffee growers via the Extension Service. The Extension Service is a team of more than 1500 workers who, under the FNC, work on the ground with farmers to distribute the resources made available from the FNC and Cenicafe.

Some of the Extension Service workers are already armed with tablets to access the app, and are able to instantly download historical and daily weather data and outline the risk from the weather patterns. This will help farmers determine the ideal time to apply corrective measures to prevent pests or harvest crops and establish new plantations. The results should mean lower risks for coffee growers, as they will have a better understanding of how weather patterns affect crops.

With recent events highlighting Colombia’s success in helping its farmers through scientific means, the country is well positioned to be hosting the International Conference on Coffee Science (ASIC 2014) from 8 – 13 September this year, see www.asic2014colombia.org. The event attracts more than 400 coffee industry leaders, scientists and speicalists from across the globe, with the goal of increasing worldwide awareness and knowledge of coffee.

Gast says that hosting the event will be a good opportunity for the group to share their knowledge, while learning from other scientists around the world. “Climate change is a huge challenge,” he says. “I hope that we will have the answers for coffee growers in the future.”

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