Anna Vänskä

Coffee and Climate Change: Snow in the Sahara and Heavy Rains in Costa Rica

It is mid-January and it's snowing in the Sahara, but there is still no sight of snow in Helsinki. Meanwhile, in Costa Rica, it's supposed to be dry season and summer at its best, but in recent days the country has been hit by heavy rains and cold winds. Rainfall has caused the coffee trees to bloom for several months too early, which has a negative effect on the coming crop.

Elisa Markula, Managing Director of the Coffee Division, wrote earlier in her blog (in Finnish) about the challenges of climate change and the unexpected weather patterns that coffee farmers encounter. Higher temperatures, prolonged rains, increased drought and stronger winds, to name a few, are the challenges that producers are increasingly encountering. Changed weather phenomena are not always caused by climate change, but contribute, for example to the spreading of plant diseases, complicating the processing of coffee or causing erosion on coffee farms.

Costa Rica Coffee Farm Tropical Storm Nate

Tropical storm Nate swept over Costa Rica in October, destroying roads and bridges. The heavy rains in the Tres Ríos area caused a landslide that ripped away coffee trees.

Can a coffee farmer adapt to climate change?

It is possible to adapt to the changing climate and the challenges it poses to some extent. Good farming practices, meaning day-to-day working practices in the coffee farm, are key to this. Healthy coffee trees have better resistance to various diseases – just like people do too. Shade trees allow you to control the temperature in the farm and the amount of light that the trees receive. Rainwater can be redirected by channels and ditches away from the trees that get excessive amounts of water. Multi-layered vegetation can bind water to the soil from which it is filtered and released at a slower rate.

Costa Rica Coffee Farm Terracing

Terracing the ground and planting shadow trees prevent erosion in a coffee farm in the Peréz Zeledón, Costa Rica.

Most Arabica varieties are very sensitive to both pests and plant diseases. One way to adapt to climate change is to develop and plant new, more resistant coffee varieties.

Costa Rica Bourbon Nursery

Coffee seedlings are grown in the nursery and planted on the farm at the age of 6-12 months. 

Decades of research behind new coffee varieties 

The National Coffee Institute of Costa Rica, ICAFE, released a new coffee variety, Catiguá, to Costa Rican farmers in December. Catiguá was developed in Brazil as early as 1980 when two varieties of coffee, Catuaí, and a leaf rust resistant Timor hybrid, were crossed. The new variety is the result of 24 years of development: every year, only the best coffee seedlings are selected in order to produce genetically homogeneous and stable variety. In 2009, the Costa Rican Coffee Institute started testing Catiguá with 18 other varieties, and the Catiguá stood up, particularly because of its productivity, cup quality and resistance. Now, 8 years later, the variety is available to farmers in the country.

Costa Rica Coffee Anna Vänskä

Ripe coffee cherries are usually dark red colour, but the cherries of some varieties turn yellow when ripe. Also, for example, orange and pink varieties are cultivated.

Choosing a coffee variety is an important decision for a farmer: the recommended life cycle of a coffee tree is 20-30 years, so a wrong variety selection has far-reaching effects. Planting new seedlings is also expensive. In addition to the price of seedlings, planting requires a lot of work and the new coffee trees produce the first cherries only after 2-3 years. It's also important to remember that all varieties of coffee require the same work: fertilisation, cutting, controlling the amount of light. The farmer is not safe from the effects of climate change only by changing the coffee variety. Paulig's partnership programs provide farmers with pragmatic support for choosing of farming practices and coffee varieties best suited to each farm, taking into account the profitability of farming. The bright future of coffee is indeed built together.

Coffee species are divided into varieties and cultivars

Like wine and strawberries, also coffee has different varieties that thrive in different environments, that are resistant to different plant diseases and that have their own distinct cup flavor.

There are two commercial coffee species: Arabica and Robusta. As a species, Robusta is more resistant towards plant diseases and can better withstand heat. Its caffeine content is higher and it has a strong and slightly bitter flavour. Arabica is generally perceived as higher quality with its bright and more complex flavour. (To learn more about coffee flavours and characteristics read Karin's beginners guide to coffee.)

These two species are divided into several varieties and cultivars, you have most likely heard of Typica, Bourbon, Gesha and SL-28 - all varieties and cultivars of Arabica. New varieties occur by mutation (somewhat unexpected change in, for example, leaf or cherry size) or as hybrids. Hybrids can be developed either by natural crossing or by cultivation (called cultivars).


Diagram of Coffee Arabica

Kingdom: Plantae
Order: Gentianales 
Family: Rubiaceae
Genus: Coffea
Species: C. arabica

Costa Rica Liberica

Another species of coffee, Liberica, can be found in the coffee collection of CATIE (The Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center) in Costa Rica. The trees and cherries of this non-commercial coffee species are big compared to Arabica and Robusta.

The writer, Paulig's Sourcing Manager Anna Vänskä, spends a year experiencing how coffee is produced in the coffee origin countries.