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Behind the paper: climate change impacts on global coffee production

In this post, we speak to Doug Richardson, author of the recent PLOS Climate article “Synchronous climate hazards pose an increasing challenge to global coffee production” about the story behind the research.

Your paper specifically sets out to look at synchronous hazards to coffee production. What led you to decide on this research question?

I was interested in looking at something called ‘spatially compounding events’. A spatially compound event is when one or more climate hazards occur over multiple regions at the same time such as to cause an impact. One example of this is in agriculture – a globally-significant crop failure can arise when enough growing regions suffer from adverse climate conditions. A fortuitous conversation with my co-authors from coffee experts at the University of Southern Queensland led us to collaborate and investigate these large-scale climate events through the lens of coffee.

How did you go about designing your study?

Coffee is grown in many regions worldwide, and there are a variety of climate-related factors that influence a plant’s productivity. We kept things relatively simple by focussing on a small number of regions – the top 12 coffee producing nations, that together account for around 90% of global production. And we selected 12 ‘climate hazards’ to analyse – six for each species (Arabica and Robusta). We then assessed during which years these hazards occurred between 1980 and 2020, with a particular focus on when a large number of hazards occurred over multiple regions.

Did you encounter any challenges in collecting or interpreting your data?

One thing we would have liked to do was directly relate coffee yield data to our climate data. Unfortunately, the yield data we had access to was badly behaved from a statistical analysis perspective. This meant it wasn’t possible to isolate the role of weather in driving peaks or troughs in coffee yield.

What struck you most about your results? What are the key messages and who do you hope might benefit from these new insights?

What really stands out is the warming signal. We found not only that the number of climate hazards occurring each year has increased in recent decades, but the type of hazard has shifted from overly cool to overly warm. This shift aligns with what we know about the impacts of climate change.

We hope that we have added to the evidence base that highlights coffee is a crop at risk of further impacts of climate change. Even in today’s climate, there could be a risk to widespread coffee crop failures from synchronised climate hazards.

What further research would you like to see in this area?

From the climate science side, it would be interesting to see what could happen with the climate hazards we studied in future decades. However, I hope there is plenty of research that is trying to find ways of improving the resilience of coffee plants, because we don’t want to be faced with a situation where the current land suitable for cultivation becomes unsuitable.

What made you choose PLOS Climate as a venue for your article?

Given our focus on the coffee belt, which is mostly made up of countries where there is less widespread access to every journal, we wanted to publish this research as open-access. We also appreciate the fact that PLOS is a non-profit.

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