A recent report released by the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) indicates that climate change may cause an increase in the pest known as the coffee berry borer. ICIPE studied plantations in Colombia, Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia, discovering that the projected increase in global temperature would make sub-tropical regions more susceptible to one of the most devastating pests to coffee crops.
The solution? Revert to cultivating the plants as an understory crop beneath taller forest trees. This was the traditional method for growing the plants, and is how coffee plants are often found in the wild– the forest canopy not only protects them from direct temperature changes, but it also supports a host of wildlife which are predators of the coffee berry borer pest, among others.
In fact, this isn’t the first biological threat to coffee that has come as a result of moving coffee out from under the forest: Over a hundred years ago, the fungus known as coffee rust eradicated many of the coffee plantations throughout Asia, resulting in that region’s heavy adoption of alternative crops such as tea and rubber (the move in India and Sri Lanka to cultivate tea is largely responsible for its ongoing popularity in the UK). Historians have theorized that the voracious spread of this fungus was largely due to the deforestation practices that coffee plantation owners underwent in order to increase their available crop space. The fungus’ spores are easily transported on wind currents, and not having any protection to block the winds from affecting them resulted in a widespread blight.
ICIPE is recommending that coffee farmers transition to the traditional shade-grown method to limit the impact this pest has on their crops as the global climate changes. Growing coffee in this manner, however, decreases the available crop yield and so can result in more expensive products down the line. Whether or not larger plantations begin to adopt these practices before nature forces their hand remains to be seen.