Coffee at risk: A&M scientists aiming to protect $170 billion global industry

An illustration of three explorers finding coffee plants

Image: Research Communications and Public Relations

Scientists from Texas A&M University are on the front line of protecting the multibillion-dollar coffee industry.

Experts agree that the coffee industry is facing serious problems. Diseases, narrow genetic diversity, changing climates and an ever-increasing global demand have experts predicting a difficult future for coffee producers.

“The threat to Central American coffee plantations is very real and pressing,” said Roger Norton, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture.  “There is widespread urgency to understand which technologies are needed to keep Central American coffee producers in business. Unfortunately, the highest quality coffees are those most threatened by the changing climate.”

As temperatures rise and extreme weather grows more frequent, Arabica coffee becomes increasingly susceptible to diseases, pests and drought, while both productivity and quality decrease.

Coffee is the main source of income for about 120 million people across the globe. The industry has a retail value estimated at $30-32 billion for the United States alone, reaching $170 billion worldwide, according to Craig Nessler, director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research.

Researchers from the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M University were recently awarded $4 million from USAID to help create a more robust and resilient coffee sector in the three Northern Triangle countries of Central America, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

“This project will benefit approximately 25,000 Central American low-income coffee farmers,” said Leo Lombardini, director of the Center for Coffee Research and Education.  “Most of the remaining 220,000 coffee producers in the three countries will benefit indirectly from this project and through multiplication of the initial efforts by our partners in the region.”

This research project will enhance farmers’ livelihoods by improving their capabilities to use climate-resilient coffee varieties, implement better crop management, adopt innovative technologies and diversify farm products, while also benefitting the environment and ecosystems in producing areas.

These changes will improve livelihoods, create new economic opportunities, especially for youth and women, and strengthen the resilience of Central American coffee farmers to climate change, while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting the environment in the regions of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala that need it most.  By providing new economic opportunities in low-income communities, it will reduce the pressure for illegal migration to the United Stations and for youth to join criminal gangs.  It will help create a more stable economic environment in these three countries and generate hope for more secure futures.

The Borlaug Institute has had almost two decades of experience working with coffee farmers and is credited with helping revitalize Rwanda’s coffee industry in the early 2000s.

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