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Action Needed to Safeguard Ethiopia’s Climate-Threatened Coffee Industry

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (London)


Up to 60 percent of Ethiopia’s coffee production area could become unsuitable for coffee farming before the end of the century, says a new study. Moving coffee production to higher ground plus forest conservation and restoration could substantially increase the area suitable for coffee growing in Ethiopia, the study adds.

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’.

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. “


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.

Access the study http://www.kew.org/science/projects/building-a-climate-resilient-coff ee-economy-for-ethiopia

Access the report https://www.nature.com/articles/nplants201781

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. www.kew.org

Facts and figures: Ethiopia and Coffee

  •  Ethiopia is the true home of Arabica coffee. Wild Arabica coffee is only found in the highlands of southern Ethiopia and a small area of neighbouring South Sudan
  •  In 2015/16 Ethiopia exported coffee around 180,000 metric tons of coffee, worth in excess of $800 million US dollars
  •  Ethiopia is the world’s 5th largest exporter of coffee, and Africa’s main exporter
  •  Most of Ethiopia’s coffee is grown in association with either native forests or native tree species, which provided the shade necessary for optimum growth and health
  •  Currently, around 19,000 km2 of Ethiopia dedicated to forest or forest-like coffee production of one type or another, which is about the size of Wales or El Salvador
  •  Ethiopia has the current potential (climatic suitability) to use around 45,000 km2 for coffee farming, more than twice the size of Wales or El Salvador.

Coffee and climate in Ethiopia

  •  Presently coffee is mainly confined to altitudes between 1200 and 2200 m
  •  The ideal average temperature for growing coffee is between 18 and 22ËšC
  •  Typically, over 1300 mm of annual rainfall is needed to grow coffee

Coffee and climate change in Ethiopia

  • In the last 50 years the average temperature in Ethiopia has increased by around 1.5ËšC
  • The mean annual temperature of Ethiopia is projected to increase by 1.1 to 3.1ËšC by the 2060s, and 1.5 to 5.1ËšC by the 2090s.
  • This would be the equivalent of moving from London to the South of France
  • A critical factor in the suitability of coffee farming is the interaction between rainfall and temperature; higher temperatures could be tolerated if there was an increase in rainfall

Climate change and its influence on Ethiopian coffee farming

  •  Worst-case climate scenario projects an almost 60% reduction in coffee farming suitability (based on a temperature increase of 4 oC) by end of century, if no adaptation measures are adopted
  •  With the relocation of coffee farms and coffee farming areas to higher altitudes, there could be the potential for a fourfold increase the land suitable for coffee farming, even under climate change
  •  Resilience built via the migration of coffee farms and coffee areas would be a major undertaking, although the relocation could be spread across several decades
  •  Regardless of intervention measures one of Ethiopia’s best known coffee growing origins, Harar, in eastern Ethiopia, is likely to disappear before the end of the century
  •  Higher altitudes are projected to become more suitable for coffee; lower altitudes are projected to become less suitable for coffee
  •  The best overall conditions for coffee farming in Ethiopia are projected for the period 2010-2039 (when Ethiopia has a potential coffee growing area of around 66,000 km2)
  •  The model projections produced by the study show that it will be necessary to move coffee upwards (in altitude) by 32 m per decade to keep pace with climate change
  •  There is a close link between coffee quality and the environment: areas identified as unsuitable or marginal generally produce lower quality coffee


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