Aug 14, 2015

Can we save organic coffee production in face of disease?

RO_1200_x_628_photo___quote_jorge_cuevas.jpgCoffee in the Northwest -- part art, part science. We can’t get enough of the delicious jolt from coffee, espresso, mocha, latte, cappuccino and all the rest. Fine coffee has become a way of life around here, with a lot of attention paid to how it’s made, where it comes from and how it’s grown.

The coffee plant is delicate and heavily dependent on the right climate and conditions to grow successfully. The world’s coffee growing regions are undergoing a disturbing transformation because of climate change. Recent studies show that on average we could lose about 25% of the capacity the world currently has for turning out Oregon’s favorite beans.

Coffee has been quite dear to me for most of my life. I grew up in Mexico and at age 21 moved to a coffee-producing area in the southern state of Oaxaca. I began working in the coffee industry in 1994 as an export manager for a small farmer cooperative. I’ve long possessed a passion for the product, and it has taken me from the producing and exporting realms in Mexico to the importing side in Portland, Oregon.

It has been painful for me in the last few years to watch coffee production dissipate because of effects from climate change.

The main cause of decreased crop production is strange weather in coffee growing countries. These are the kinds of weather extremes we’ll see more of as the climate changes—weather that impact the health of coffee and allows diseases to thrive while weakening the coffee crop’s ability to stave off disease. For instance, there is an airborne fungal disease known as Coffee Leaf Rust (also known as Roya). It attacks coffee trees and wreaks havoc on coffee producers.

Colombia was at the epicenter of Coffee Leaf Rust’s devastating resurgence a few years ago when the country underwent unusually heavy, sustained rainfall and cloudy conditions. This change in climate in the region resulted in the spread of Coffee Leaf Rust like never before, as it migrated throughout Central America and Mexico.

Coffee production was decimated, and the organic category—which is growing a tremendous rate—was the hardest hit. Because organic farms don't use pesticides or chemical fertilizers, they were more susceptible to Coffee Leaf Rust. And once the disease hit, the farmers were left with very few options to combat it. Those that opted to use pesticides or fertilizers lost their organic certification. We’ve seen similar struggles with Coffee Leaf Rust in El Salvador, and most recently, my beloved Mexico.

As a coffee industry, we cannot sit idle while climate change destroys our way of life. And as a native of a coffee-producing country, I cannot watch this destruction without taking action.

At Sustainable Harvest, we take action by joining with partners to find solutions. An example of this is a recent trip I took to Mexico: In June, my local team traveled with a Portland-based coffee roaster to meet up with local agronomists there. Together, we’re working with organic coffee producers to explore natural solutions to mitigate the effect of Coffee Leaf Rust.

In coffee—as with any industry affected by climate change—it’s essential to search for answers that will allow our supply chain to continue to prosper. It’s my hope that in Mexico and all coffee-producing countries, we can develop solutions to climate-change-related obstacles that will preserve farmers’ livelihoods and ensure a steady supply of unique, delicious coffee. But even more importantly, we must act together to stop climate change in its tracks. That’s why we’re a proud member of the Renew Oregon coalition, and we urge other businesses to join. We’ve also signed on to the Oregon Business Climate Declaration; as a business headquartered in Oregon with a global presence, we want our state to be a leader in the global climate movement. Why? Because we live in a unique time where we’re seeing the effects of climate change but can still act to stop it. Let’s work together to safeguard the things we love and enjoy every day that are threatened by climate change.

Jorge Cuevas is Chief Coffee Officer for Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers.