Dr. Anthony Horton explains how coffee production causes deforestation, land degradation, and resource depletion.
According to a report in the Guardian on May 31 2015, this year’s coffee growing season in Vietnam has been a disaster. A local farmer interviewed for the story stated that it was the worst drought he had seen in more than 10 years and that some people don’t have enough water to drink.
A prolonged drought has affected all of the five provinces in the Central Highlands which collectively produce 60% of Vietnam’s coffee. Rains that would usually commence in March or April are only starting to fall now. Nguyen Van Viet, the farmer interviewed for the report, stated that it is getting more difficult to grow coffee due to the lack of water and the increasing temperatures. He lamented that he had lost almost 4000 m2 of coffee crops on his 5 acre property in Dak Lak, a province which contributed 30% of the total Vietnamese coffee harvest last year.
In the neighbouring Lam Dong Province, an additional 150,000 acres of coffee have been placed under stress by the drought. As a result, coffee exports have reached a 5 year low and are 40% below the same period last year, and the economic costs of this low has not been calculated as yet. Vietnam is the largest producer of Robusta in the world. Robusta is often used in instant coffee and espresso. Following its introduction by the French in the 19th Century it has lifted millions of Vietnamese people out of poverty. Following massive growth in the 1990’s Vietnam is the world’s second largest exporter of coffee and supplies approximately 25% of the United Kingdom’s coffee.
According to a 2012 report from the Initiative for Climate and Coffee, deforestation, land degradation and resource depletion are natural accompaniments to coffee cultivation in Vietnam. Land used for coffee production has very low resistance to soil erosion, higher evapotranspiration, drought or extreme weather events, the report contends.
The number of warm days in the Central Highlands is expected to increase to 134 in 2050 and 230 in 2100, according to the United Nations. Despite Robusta being more resistant to higher temperatures than Arabica, temperature increases could damage plant development according to Dave D’Haeze from the Hanns R Neumann Foundation. Temperatures beyond the flowering threshold can lead to flowering abortion which is a serious issue, D’Haeze stated. He is collaborating with coffee farmers to determine the correct amount of water to use for coffee. Government guidelines recommend 400-500 litres per plant, however he thinks it could be much less.
Water is by far the most significant problem in Vietnam, with rainfall in Dak Lak being 86% lower than this time last year. According to the provincial Bureau of Water Resource Management, reservoirs in Lam Dong are 1 metre lower than last year. United Nations projections point to higher rainfall in the wet season, however there may also be up to 20% less rain in the drier months.
While not being a coffee drinker myself, I can appreciate people’s want to have and enjoy it. While this report focuses on Vietnam, it is possible (even likely) that other coffee regions around the world may also be under similar threat. This is yet another example of why the climate change message needs to be heeded, and given the huge amount of coffee that is consumed every day around the world, it may well be one of the few that resonates with enough people to actually get them acting rather than just thinking. I’ve heard more than a few people say something along the lines of “climate change is such a big issue, what could I possibly do to help?” The risk of possibly not having their morning coffee may prompt them to think about other issues that are in their immediate sphere of influence, such as how often they use their vehicle for short trips or to commute to/from work when they could take public transport, ride or cycle. Some may think that this isn’t going to make that much of a difference, but I would argue it would, particularly if each member of their family, some of all of their friends or work colleagues also did that even a few days per week. Such a habit could also have positive health impacts given that personal exposure to emissions from nearby vehicles will be lower.
Vehicle emissions react with other urban emissions to generate ozone which is a greenhouse gas, and under the warmer conditions that often characterise urban areas as a result of heat islands, tightly packed office towers and reduced ventilation (as wind speed between the buildings is lower), reactions with other emissions speed up and ozone production in these areas increases.
Photo: Saad Faruque/Flickr