If you were a seedling in 2050…

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(Die Gespräche haben wir auf Deutsch geführt).

What does the future hold for avocado, coffee, and cashew? A recent publication about the consequences of climate change for these three crops received a lot of media attention. The study is based on calculations with CONSUS, an agricultural planning tool developed with our support. In this second article* about the study, we talk to experts who were not directly involved in the research.

What motivated the Syngenta Foundation to enter into this collaboration with the ZHAW?
Dominik Klauser (1): This issue and the collaboration are important for two main reasons. Firstly, climate change will have a major impact on agriculture. Which crops should be cultivated in the future? How and where? For the answers, the world needs good models and precise information on numerous topics. The second reason is the significant improvement in basic data over recent years. Good data on soil quality and structure, climate, and land use are now publicly available. The world also has the climate models of the IPCC. We wanted to see if one could use all this data to create reliable future scenarios. One of the results is the recently published study.

In its new strategy, the Foundation focuses on Climate-Smart Resilient Agriculture. How does the study help put this focus into practice?
For us, "climate-smart" means promoting the long-term productivity and resilience of smallholder agriculture whilst reducing its environmental footprint. Long-term scenarios of what, where, and how crops can be grown, together with societal trends, form the basis for important decisions. They include, for example: which crop varieties and interventions should be chosen to improve agricultural systems sustainably in the future? How can the required scale be achieved? These questions are also very important for our Foundation, as we are currently in the process of defining long-term local priorities based on our new global strategy.

Why does the study focus on coffee, avocado, and cashew? 
For me, there are four reasons. Selection cycles last between 15 and 20 years, so current decisions and investments will not have practical consequences in the field until 2035. However, climate change is already noticeable in many growing regions today! So, it’s high time that the sustainability of these crops is secured. Secondly, all three crops are perennial; their cultivation demands sizable investment. They’re grown from seedlings instead of seeds, which makes propagation time-consuming and expensive. After that, one has five to ten years of low yields and poor quality. Financing models are therefore needed to enable smallholders, in particular, to make the necessary changes. 

Thirdly, coffee, avocado, and cashew are important sources of income for smallholders. The yield potential is high and demand is increasing worldwide. Prices have also typically been much higher than for rice or maize, for example. For farmers with small plots, these crops are good options. Fourthly, we wanted to encourage companies in the supply chains to become more active in the necessary change processes. Especially in Switzerland, there are many companies that depend on raw materials like coffee. We’d like to partner with such companies to support productive and sustainable farming systems in the long term.

The Foundation is based in Switzerland. It already has several partnerships with Swiss organizations, including in R&D. What are the special features of a research collaboration "on your doorstep"?
Part of it is certainly the home advantage. We speak the same language, and can easily meet. In addition, I know the research system very well through my own education. Unfortunately, Swiss researchers sometimes hide their light unnecessarily under a bushel. Agricultural research here is broad, well spread across institutions, and of high quality! However, I still see the potential for greater focus on innovation, rather than research. Many research results stay in an ivory tower – they get into academic journals, but not the field. That’s a shame, especially in agriculture, where innovation is urgently required in many disciplines.

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A coffee roaster lays out his trade’s responsibilities

As a coffee grower, importer, roaster, and seller, what did you think when you read this study? 
Philipp Schallberger (2): I’m delighted that the consequences of climate change for coffee continue to be addressed. For us in the sector, the study confirms some things we already knew. As the lead author said in your interview: his news-worthier findings were actually in avocado and cashew. But for many people, the study is also an eye-opener about coffee.

How will climate change affect coffee consumers?
Not at all in the short term, but they’ll definitely see shifts in the medium term. This is especially true for perceived quality in the upper-middle price segment. This large 'taste market' is currently dominated by coffee from Vietnam and Brazil – and the study shows that precisely these two countries will be hit hard. I foresee problems especially in Vietnam because many soils there are exhausted. Soil health has a big influence on coffee quality and quantity.

So will a good cup of coffee soon be more expensive?
Coffee prices will continue to rise, including for less good varieties. But at the moment this is primarily due to labor costs, not climate change. Picking coffee is very hard work. In important producer countries like Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit workers willing to do so. My company, for example, now pays pickers five times the wages of just a few years ago.

But in the longer term, climate change will also affect prices...?
Yes. For coffee, global warming means cultivation at ever-higher altitudes and in regions increasingly far from the equator. However, the available space is limited – small countries close to the equator, in particular, have few alternative plots. This means that some cultivation regions will disappear more or less without replacement, resulting in a supply shortage. Intensive production will continue, however, especially in Brazil and Vietnam. It’s likely that new resistant, high-yielding hybrids will at least partially offset the decline.

The ZHAW study took a close look at Arabica coffee. Will we all have to drink Robusta in 2050?
“Have to” makes that sound undesirable, which is not the case. At least one journalist suggested that the next climate study should examine Robusta! It is, indeed, a (climate-)“more robust” coffee, but definitely not an ugly duckling. The world already drinks a lot of it. Arabica now comprises only about 55% of production. Hybrids of the two will soon become even more important than at present. The choice of varieties could become wider: Robusta is just one of many varieties of the coffee species Canephora. When it’s handled with as much respect and precision as many Arabica coffees, beautiful smooth products emerge. Admittedly the sensory experience with Robusta doesn’t quite match Arabica, but today it is already better than with conventional handling. On the tactile side, there are some beautiful Robustas on their way, for example from Ecuador, Guinea, or India.

Where else does the coffee sector need to catch up?
We roasters still have a lot to do. We play by far the most important role in the market. We can purchase beans from around 12.5 million producers. In shops or restaurants, consumers can rarely choose from more than ten coffees. So, my appeal to the roasting companies is: to invest in the long-term future of this wonderful culture. I see room for improvement in agroforestry, for example. Roasters should pay in advance for the harvest, as coffee producers only earn money once a year. Investments in research, in trees that provide shade, and in projects that help save water and promote biodiversity are important. There’s also a need for investment in post-harvest handling and the organic sector.

You don’t mention carbon dioxide…
Greenhouse gases and other emissions are important issues in agriculture. But I detect a certain "CO2  tunnel vision" in the coffee industry. “Offsetting” is in fashion and reduction efforts are quickly rewarded. However, I think our sector has more urgent issues to face. Credit bottlenecks are not a very sexy topic, but they have a huge influence on smallholders with only one harvest a year. I’ve already mentioned soil quality and labor shortages. Coffee also faces further challenges, for example relating to gender. Farmers of other crops can pull the big CO2 levers much more effectively.

How will your job change in the coming years?
Some things will stay the same: I – and thousands of colleagues around the world – will continue to take great pleasure and care in making beautiful coffee. Closely linked to this, we will also become better at telling its story. We will also increasingly become investors – and not only in coffee. In some regions, the climate will already prevent the next generation from growing coffee. Especially in cases like that, we absolutely have to help diversify economies and create new jobs. We roasters have a responsibility here.

1) Dominik Klauser is our Foundation's research & development lead.  
2) Philipp Schallberger is a managing partner at Kaffeemacher GmbH 

*The first article was an interview with the lead author.