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Action needed to safeguard Ethiopia’s climate-threatened coffee industry

  • Up to 60% of Ethiopia’s coffee production area could become unsuitable for coffee farming before the end of the century
  • Moving coffee production to higher ground + forest conservation and restoration could substantially increase the area suitable for coffee growing in Ethiopia
  • Ethiopia is the world’s 5th largest coffee producer, providing a quarter of export earnings
  • 15 million Ethiopians approx. are engaged in coffee farming and production

Scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and collaborators in Ethiopia have today published an innovative new study on the impact of climate change on coffee farming in Ethiopia. The research, conducted over a three-year period, investigated the potential for building a climate resilient coffee economy for Ethiopia. The paper, published today in Nature Plants, is called ‘Resilience potential of the Ethiopian coffee sector under climate change’ (DOI:10.1038/nplants.2017.81, https://www.nature.com/articles/nplants201781

Ethiopia is the world’s fifth largest coffee producer and Africa’s main exporter. In 2015/16, 180,000 metric tonnes of coffee at a value of US$800m was exported from the country, generating a quarter of the country’s export earnings and providing livelihoods for around 15 million Ethiopians. Against a backdrop of rapidly increasing temperatures and decreasing rainfall, there was an urgent need to understand how climate change is influencing coffee production and what the options for the future are.

Justin Moat, co-leader of the study at Kew Gardens said: “This is the culmination of many years work, where we are trying to understand in detail the influence of climate change on coffee production in Ethiopia. We found that a ‘business as usual’ approach could be disastrous for the Ethiopian coffee economy in the long-term. Timely, precise, science-based decision making is required now and over the coming decades, to ensure sustainability and resilience for the Ethiopian coffee sector.”

In its wild state Arabica coffee (Coffea arabica) is a forest plant restricted to the highlands of Ethiopia and neighbouring South Sudan. It has been used in Ethiopia as a food and beverage for many hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Currently 80% of Ethiopia’s coffee comes from forests or forest-like habitats, and covers around 20,000km of the country’s landscape, with another 20% grown in small plots in sun or partial shade.

The new study uses detailed computer modelling developed by the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), and high resolution satellite imagery to map the coffee growing landscape of Ethiopia, in combination with numerous computer simulations, to project changes in climatic suitability for coffee under different climate change scenarios until the end of this century.

The research shows that an increase in temperature of around 4°C by the end of this century could lead to a 39–59% decrease in the current coffee-growing area of Ethiopia, if no interventions are made. Conversely, relocation of coffee-growing areas could potentially result in a fourfold increase in the coffee farming area within Ethiopia, even under climate change. This would require a major shift in the coffee growing landscape, mostly to higher altitudes, as temperatures continue to increase. Considerable numbers of farmers would need to diversify away from coffee, whilst others would need to take up coffee growing for the first time.

Generally, those areas that are currently marginal for coffee farming will decline first, although some areas that are highly suitable today are projected to decline more rapidly than expected. Some areas will have in-built climate resilience, mainly due to their current suitability and geographical position. The research provides climate change projections for each of Ethiopia’s 16 main coffee growing areas.

Feedback from coffee farmers and field study of coffee farming sites, indicates that coffee farming has already been negatively influenced by climate change in Ethiopia, and that these changes happen slowly (over many decades) until tipping points are reached.

Dr Aaron Davis of RBG Kew, co-leader of the research said: “On the basis of the study we now have a clear vision of what needs to be done to make the Ethiopian coffee sector climate resilient, at least until the end of this century. The sector has the potential to increase production, even under climate change. In the longer term, however, the only truly sustainable solution is to combat the root causes of climate change.”

Professor Sebsebe Demissew, a senior botanical scientist from the University of Addis Ababa and a co-author of the research said: “Arabica coffee originates from the highland forests of Ethiopia, and it is our gift to the world. As Ethiopia is the main natural storehouse of genetic diversity for Arabica coffee, what happens in Ethiopia could have long-term impacts for coffee farming globally.”

Ethiopia is doing its level best to combat climate change through the development of renewable energy and the introduction of modern farming technologies, including soil and water conservation. There is no doubt that this study will contribute hugely to developing a climate resilient coffee economy in Ethiopia and other countries. The Ethiopian coffee sector could definitely benefit from these endeavours, so that coffee growers can retain their fair share of the global market.”  H.E. Dr. Hailemichael Aberra Afework, Ethiopian Ambassador to the UK.

Ends

Notes to Editors:

For more information on the research paper, interviews or images please contact the Kew Gardens Press Office on pr@kew.org or +44 (0) 20 8332 5607

The study was conducted for the project Building a Climate Resilient Coffee Economy for Ethiopia, within the Strategic Climate Institutions Programme (SCIP) Fund, financed by the governments of the UK (DFID), Denmark and Norway; the views expressed in the study do not necessarily reflect the UK, Norway and Denmark governments’ official policies. The study was led and managed by Dr Aaron Davis (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK) and Justin Moat (RBG Kew and University of Nottingham) and Dr Tadesse Woldermariam Gole (Environment and Coffee Forest Forum (ECFF), Ethiopia).

The report that accompanies the research paper, Coffee Farming and Climate Change in Ethiopia: Impacts, Forecasts, Resilience and Opportunities, provides details on the location, timing, and severity of projected climate change impacts for the 16 coffee farming areas of Ethiopia.

Find out more about Building a climate resilient coffee economy for Ethiopia 

The main study

Moat, J., Williams, J., Baena, S., Wilkinson, T., Gole, T.W., Challa, Z.K., Demissew, S., & Davis, A.P. (2017). Resilience potential of the Ethiopian coffee sector under climate change. Nature Plants 3: 17081 (2017). DOI: 10.1038/nplants.2017.81.

Accompanying report

Moat, J., Williams, J., Baena, S., Wilkinson, Demissew, S., Challa, Z.K., T., Gole, T.W. & Davis, A.P. (2017). Coffee Farming and Climate Change in Ethiopia: Impacts, Forecasts, Resilience and Opportunities. Summary Report 2017. The Strategic Climate Institutions Programme (SCIP). Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (UK). Pp. 37.

J. Moat and S. Baena are PhD researchers at the University of Nottingham

Access the study

Access the report https://www.nature.com/articles/nplants201781 (live from Monday 19th)

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is a world famous scientific organisation, internationally respected for its outstanding collections as well as its scientific expertise in plant diversity, conservation and sustainable development in the UK and around the world. Kew Gardens is a major international and a top London visitor attraction. Kew’s 132 hectares of landscaped gardens, and Kew’s country estate, Wakehurst, attract over 1.5 million visits every year.