By Gracie Pearsall
In recent years, Vietnam has emerged as a giant in the coffee industry, exporting 1.8 million tonnes of coffee every year. But this US$ 3 billion industry faces an uncertain future. While Vietnam ranks as the second-largest producer of coffee in the world, it also ranks as one of the top 10 countries for climate-related damages since the 1990s. Rising temperatures and increased instances of severe weather threaten the coffee plantations that cover more than 640,000 hectares of Vietnam. In the face of this looming threat, coffee farmers and stakeholders are coming together to find ways to adapt to the changing climate and build a more resilient coffee industry.
In Vietnam, the main climate-related concern are increased instances of extreme weather, especially droughts. Experts predict that rainfall will decrease by as much as 20 mm annually and that the dry season will be up to 3 months longer than usual by 2050. These disruptions to weather patterns are particularly dangerous to the coffee industry, as farmers rely on precise timing to maximise yield and quality. For example, coffee farmers must plan so the coffee plant flowers at the height of the wet season.
Furthermore, rising temperatures are predicted to reduce the area suitable for growing coffee by 50 percent by 2050. The warmer climate could shift the Coffee Belt north and leave much of Vietnam outside the belt. The changing climate and uncharacteristic weather patterns will also make pest control much more difficult. Farmers are already witnessing the Coffee Bean Borer, a pest previously confined to the Congo, damage crops as it spreads throughout the Coffee Belt because these pests thrive in the warmer and wetter conditions. Any further warming will lead to an explosion of pests and pesticides, which farmers would need to combat.
Proposed adaptation measures
In March of 2017, stakeholders, farmers, and government officials convened at a workshop in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, the main coffee growing area, to discuss possible adaptation measures to minimise climate-related damages to Vietnam’s coffee industry.
One proposed adaptation measure was to diversify the types of coffee grown in Vietnam. The industry currently specialises in one species of coffee: Robusta. This homogeneity puts the coffee plants at risk of damage if a pest or disease were to attack the plants. All participants agreed that the industry needed new varieties of coffee plants. Introducing new types of coffee could make the industry more resilient to pests, which is crucial since pests proliferate in the new, warmer climate.
Diversification would also be beneficial to the soil. The current homogeneity means that the same nutrients are being stripped from the soil season after season, leading to bare and arid soil and dangerous run-off. Because their soil is depleted, many farmers are over-fertilising their fields, causing even more run-off and pollution. A more diverse coffee crop could change the nutrients that the plant consumes, giving the soil a chance to replenish the nutrients.
Cover crops and canopy trees
Another suggestion was to train farmers to use cover crops in coffee’s off-season. Cover crops would hold the soil in place, prevent run-off, and put essential nutrients back into the soil. The farmers could also harvest and sell the cover crops, thus getting an extra source of income.
Participants also encouraged farmers to plant canopy trees in their coffee plantations. These trees would provide crucial shade to coffee plants, as drought and heat become more severe. The canopy trees would also play a similar role to cover crops and prevent run-off and keep nutrients in the soil. Many farmers in Vietnam already employ this technique and use fruit-bearing trees, such as the Durian Tree, to provide shade for their coffee trees, and as a second source of income by selling the durians.
Stakeholders and policymakers are pushing to train and educate smallholder farmers with more workshops like the one hosted in March. Smallholder farms produce 95% of Vietnam’s coffee, however, these small-scale operations often lack the credit to invest in new farming methods. To address this, many large firms and corporations are partnering with NGO’s to invest in smallholders and create a smallholder assistance program. With these efforts and more, the coffee sector is bracing for climate change and building a more climate-resilient system of production.