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Coffee, critters and climate change

With temperatures rising and pests proliferating, Indian coffee growers are fighting challenges beyond their control

Unpredictable rise in temperatures followed by an uncertain monsoon cycle has gradually started taking a toll on coffee yields. (Chevanon Photography, Pexels)
Unpredictable rise in temperatures followed by an uncertain monsoon cycle has gradually started taking a toll on coffee yields. (Chevanon Photography, Pexels)

Coffee is the first thing I see, smell and taste in the day. But as caffeine-junkies like you or me ride the wave of premium specialty brews, we need to pay attention to growers across major regions in India, such as Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, who are battling a host of challenges due to a changing climate.

As spring transitions to summer, the pattern of unpredictable rise in temperatures followed by an uncertain monsoon cycle has gradually started taking a toll on yields and impacting the livelihood of coffee farmers.

Bengaluru based Tej Thammaiah, a co-founder of Maverick & Farmer Coffee Roasters and third-generation coffee farmer, says his team of growers on the 150-acre estate have meticulously documented the cultivation process to pinpoint the impact of increasing temperatures over the last decade. The mild, aromatic Arabica plant with its nuanced flavours, second only to Robusta in production volume in India, is highly susceptible to even the slightest change in climate. As temperatures increase, it hastens fruit ripening, leading to a loss in the overall quality of beans.

To fight this temperature change at estates such as Pollibetta in Coorg, his growers strive to find plots at higher, cooler elevations. But in this new environment, the finicky coffee fruit typically takes longer to mature. Moreover, changing plot locations is not a sustainable solution since coffee fruits in India are grown primarily in “shady” conditions, under a canopy of trees. And deforestation and logging is taking a toll everywhere.

It gets worse: When plants aren’t grown in ideal conditions, it leaves them more vulnerable to pests and diseases. Sunalini Menon, president of a coffee grading and training institute called Coffeelab in Bengaluru, mentions that a beetle known as white stem borer has been particularly harmful, spreading through India and Sri Lanka. It prefers plants exposed to sunlight and after burrowing in hard wood and roots as a larva, it hatches and feeds off the plant, destroying the woody tissue, leading to stems wilting and leaves yellowing. The beetle seems to have a particular liking for Arabica.

Not all hope is lost, though. Menon says India was one of the first countries to battle another infamous dweller, a fungus known as leaf rust, at the Mysore Coffee Experimental Station established by the British in 1925 at Chikmagalur, Karnataka. Known as the Central Coffee Research Institute, this research centre now run by the Coffee Board of India is researching and guiding growers on pest control, as well as initiatives such as diversifying shade patterns with local balsa and cedar trees and introducing new varietals of Arabica and Robust suited for tropical growth.

But she does believe it’s important to let go of the hesitancy to uproot plants. Farmers, perhaps for cultural reasons, have typically been hesitant to replant their land though research suggests that shorter plant life-cycles increase quantity, improve bean quality and even give growers some reprieve from emerging pests and diseases.

Ultimately, however, no practice can replace the tedious, time-consuming process of screening crops regularly. A task which falls squarely on growers.

Some shift to growing other crops. Those who stick it out, especially in smaller estates, need more support–in the form of agritourism, research on new techniques, investment in weather stations or, simply, from consumers.

If that doesn’t happen, we may in time find it increasingly difficult to get that morning fix.

For those new to coffee: Thammaiah suggests Selection 795 or Cauvery to taste domestic Arabicas (while we still can).

Nightcap is a column on beverages by Varud Gupta, author of Bhagwaan Ke Pakwaan and Chhotu. @varudgupta

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