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Coffee could be a luxury if farmers don't get climate change help, experts warn

By Jemma Crew, PA Health and Science Correspondent in Peru

Coffee could become a luxury in the UK if businesses do not invest more to help farmers who are abandoning their crops because of climate change and historically low prices.

Temperature extremes, increased humidity and crippling market prices are forcing coffee producers in Peru to turn to other sources of income as they struggle to harvest healthy crops.

Farmers of the Arabica bean, used in thousands of Britons' daily flat whites and cappuccinos, are deserting their farms or turning to other crops, as pests and disease trigger smaller harvests of lower-quality beans.

Farmers are also being forced to grow the delicate plant on ever-higher, cooler land, as rising annual average temperatures render large swathes of ground unsuitable.

By 2050, up to half the land currently used globally to grow coffee could have become unusable for this purpose, experts predict.

The environmental cost of this could be dire, with increased deforestation likely in order to clear new areas for coffee farms.

Experts fear the quality of coffee could be diminished as farmers turn to new varieties, and that lower production volumes could cause prices to increase.

Catherine David, head of commercial partnerships at Fairtrade, said the UK public "really expect businesses to be paying a fair price for their coffee - this isn't a nice-to-have for them".

She told the PA news agency: "While now coffee sales have grown and it's a very popular product and we can pick up coffee from all different price ranges, I think if we don't invest now then coffee could become a luxury, longer term.

"Because if 50% of land currently used for coffee isn't going to be suitable for it by 2050, and coffee farmers are abandoning their farms, there simply won't be enough coffee, and so we could, conceivably, get to a point where coffee is no longer available for, say, £1.50 at Greggs, but becomes a premium product for only those who can afford to enjoy it.

"It really is a crisis we are facing and I think it's one that, if the UK public were more aware of, they'd be pretty scandalised that brands, retailers and coffee shops that they are buying their coffee from aren't doing more."

The poorest farmers are being hit the hardest, because they cannot invest profits in tools to improve the soil or buy new plants.

In places such as Tarapoto, farmers have even returned to growing the coca plant, the raw material for cocaine, despite a Government initiative to reduce production.

Norandino, a Fairtrade co-operative representing the largest number of farmers in Peru, about 7,000, said extreme rainfall two years ago destroyed crops and caused buildings to crumple in the north west region Piura.

Its headquarters were flooded with water, and members fear the region may become uninhabitable in the future.

It buys coffee from its producers at a minimum price higher than the current market rate, but many not in co-operatives are without this vital safety net.

In Montero, a valley district in Piura, leaf rust disease has continued to diminish yields after a devastating outbreak five years ago.

The disease, which has been exacerbated by climate change, covers the leaves with orange dust and causes them to fall off, stopping the plant photosynthesising.

Farmers replaced many of their crops with the catimor variety, which is resistant to the rust but vulnerable to the brown eye fungus, which has also become more common due to rising temperatures.

Over the last five years, coffee production in the area shrank from 80% to 20%, with many now turning to the more-resilient sugar cane.

The family of Segundo Alejandro Guerrero Mondragon, part of the Norandino co-operative, has been experimenting with new coffee varieties.

This summer has been unusually cold, meaning the coffee has not been drying properly, while an outbreak of coffee rust last year has led to lower yields this harvest.

The family has started planting higher up the steep valley, as plants are no longer able to thrive at the altitudes once perfect for their growth, replacing the lower coffee plants with sugar cane.

But there is only so much hillside before the land runs out.

The 72-year-old was one of the founders of the organisation that became Norandino. His family has been farming coffee for more than 100 years.

He told PA: "Our area used to be free of all types of disease.

"There was no rust, there was no brown eye, there was no borer (a beetle that is an aggressive coffee pest).

"Lately we were managing to partly control brown eye, but when we got rust it was a largely unknown disease and really concerned us, it hit us really hard and there was a huge drop in production.

"For me it was very disappointing, we had coffee plantations with a really good crop and we were left with next to nothing, it was almost completely destroyed.

"I was a little bit lucky because of my children (three are agronomists) who helped to manage the crop and for the greater part managed to control the fungus. Others were left with nothing."

His sons Hugo, 33, and Omar, 35, are helping him experiment with new varieties of coffee in a protected nursery, to produce a more resilient bean without compromising on quality.

Organic fertilisers and irrigation have meant the plants are healthier than their poorer neighbours', but with little to no boundaries between plantations, disease is just a boot print away from being spread.

The family has been able to invest in production facilities to speed up their coffee farming due to being members of the co-operative.

Poorer farmers who are not members can use their machinery, while the family is providing seasonal employment for students and women, and sharing their technical knowledge.

One of those they have been helping is Sefelmira Alberca Pangalima, a single mother who cannot support her two daughters with her dwindling, disease-ridden coffee crop.

The 50-year-old inherited a quarter of a hectare of land after her father's recent death, but has found it difficult to become a member of a co-operative as she does not hold the legal rights to her share of the farm.

She is hoping to obtain the correct documents and join Norandino.

In the meantime, she has been securing extra income by helping the family harvest, cooking meals, and sewing.

She told PA: "Sometimes we plant coffee but a disease that comes in on the wind or something, I don't know, they dry out.

"We plant them, and they start well and then they wither.

"But in the future, I hope to produce enough coffee and then perhaps join an organisation and sell at a better price."

Those worst hit are adamant they want their children to be spared their struggles, with an increasing challenge being how to encourage the younger generation to stick with the industry.

Omar added: "If Fairtrade did not exist... we would not now be growing coffee.

"Or perhaps only about one third of what we grow now, just enough to meet the demand of the small plant we have. It would not be profitable.

"Or maybe everything that is now coffee would instead be cane, because it is an easier crop to tend, and is more profitable than coffee.

"Without the coffee, professional people like me would not be here, we would be working in the city or elsewhere."

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