While Baba Budan, the Sufi monk, planted the smuggled seven coffee beans in the bountiful hills of Chikmagalur, little did he know that India, one day, would be the 6th largest coffee producer, with Karnataka contributing 71 per cent of coffee production to the world. Though the coffee culture has evolved through the years, and there has been a significant boom globally for coffee, the threat for your morning cup is real and is right there knocking on the doors—climate change.
Unpredictable weather patterns are affecting most parts of the world, including India. The country grows a lot of Robusta and Arabica, and both these varieties suffer prolonged periods of inadequate rainfall, temperature rise, drought and heavy flooding.
Samia Subhani, a fourth-generation coffee planter and the founder of "The Kaimara Belt Coffee," sounded distressed. Her family has been into coffee growing and trading for over 150 years, and their estate in the Baba Budangiri hills grows Arabica, the most demanding variety. Subhani's estate has 50-80 farmers working on the plantation daily, all dependent entirely on coffee farming. But with the ongoing effects of climate change, coffee is going through a difficult phase putting all their lives at risk.
"Climate change causes leaf shedding, reduced coffee plant productivity, and increased vulnerability to pests. Extreme cold delays plant flowering and lowers berry quality. Heavy rains at irregular times cause cherries to burst and drop prematurely. Continuous heavy rains before harvest prevent drying, leading to crop spoilage," Subhani explained.
But like they say, every solution has a problem. Subhani mentioned that we must dig deeper into our pockets and follow some mitigation measures to maintain the yield and deliver quality coffee to patrons. "So, we provide artificial rains during droughts, maintain proper irrigation in the system, avoid using harmful pesticides to control soil erosion and use only soil-friendly organic fertilisers."
While this is the situation in an Arabica coffee plantation at Chikmagalur, Coorg, popularly known as the "Scotland of India," is known to grow more of Robusta.
"Climate change is certain to impact coffee yields due to temperature changes. Coorg is experiencing water scarcity, affecting coffee production. Coffee plants require water, nutrients, rainfall, and sunshine for healthy growth and harvest. Fluctuations in yield have increased, with lower yields in recent years. Delayed monsoons in Coorg will further reduce usable berry production," said Shruti Shibulal, CEO and Director of Tamara Leisure Experiences.
Though these climatic impacts are less friendly to coffee crops, Shibulal believes they have the advantage of scientific studies to inform how we can prepare for this impending change. Collaboration and knowledge sharing between those with high knowledge of the crop and those with research-driven and technological expertise is vital to assess, test and implement viable solutions.
"The Tamara Coorg is a 100 per cent organic plantation. Therefore, our irrigation is entirely dependent on rainfall. Rainwater harvesting tanks here facilitate the annual reuse of 90 lakh litres of rainwater. These reserves do marginally help us contend with unpredictable weather patterns. However, the coffee trees depend on rain and sunshine in balanced intervals to yield the greatest number of healthy berries," she added.
According to Shibulal, instead of using measures like industrial fans or increased labour to speed up the drying process of coffee berries, they focus on protecting and nourishing their coffee trees using organic fertilisers and natural supplements. They also prioritise sustainable practices like reusing rainwater for irrigation and actively monitoring soil health. She further emphasised the importance of maintaining a tree canopy structure, which creates a favourable micro-climate for coffee plants and supports biodiversity.
"I would turn my support to local and regional producers or individual plantations (whenever possible). Smaller establishments will face greater challenges during times such as these. As consumers, we must lend our loyalty to those actively pursuing practices that combat climate change in the long run," Shibulal concluded.
Tapaswini Purnesh, a fifth generation coffee planter and Director - Marketing & Promotions of Classic Coffee, mentioned that other coffee planters, including the Harley Estate at Sakleshpur in Karnataka, are also battling climate change.
"The worst scenario is the last 4 to 5 years, where we have been experiencing heavy rains during harvest season, i.e., November to February, which normally is a complete dry spell. India is unique to the sun drying of coffee. However, due to unseasonal rains during harvest, plantations are now installing mechanical dryers to avoid quality deterioration," Purnesh said.
She also stated that coffee production is highly labour-dependent. In the long run, finding labour may become increasingly challenging, an evident trend. As the cost of implementing adaptive measures rises and the arduousness of growing quality coffee amidst climatic pressures is considered, customers must acknowledge that good coffee comes with a price tag. "The coffee growers will be motivated to enhance and refine their coffee cultivation practices if they receive adequate remuneration from the price realisation."
Meanwhile, the latest estimates warn that climate change may mean that as much as half of the land used for coffee production worldwide may no longer be suitable for it by the middle of the century if global warming continues at this rate. So, as all these coffee planters suggest, every citizen must be more responsible towards our environment, travel responsibly, and follow more sustainable practices to save our environment and the most loved, coffee.