Almost everything can be seen through the eyes of a geographer. Take coffee, for example; to most people, coffee is a delicious beverage and nothing more. But to geographers coffee holds a number of intriguing chronicles relating to physical geography, human geography, biogeography, and many other aspects.
Where is Coffee Grown?
Coffee is variety of shrub that is native to the tropical areas of sub-Saharan Africa. Now widely grown around the globe, commercial coffee cultivation is primarily restricted to the tropical belt around the equator, specifically the area between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.
There are a number of distinct species with the genus Coffee but the most commonly consumed as a delicious beverage are Coffee arabica and Coffee robusta. The Arabica variety is the most widely distributed representing about 70% of the world’s production with Brazil being a major producer. Arabica coffee plants thrive in a humid climate with annual rainfall between 40-60 inches and a consistent temperature around 68 °F and grows at elevations of 3000 to more than 6000 feet above sea level in areas where frost is rare. On the island of Java in Indonesia, Coffee arabica area planted year round and the fruit is harvested year round as well. However, in parts of Brazil the Arabica variety is seasonal and are only harvested in the winter.
Arabica coffee is the higher quality variety, primarily due to its lower acidity. However, it is not as hardy of a plant as the Robusta variety and it produces lower yields. For these reasons the Arabica coffee beans are primarily purchased by gourmet coffee companies at a higher price.
Coffee robusta is a more acidic and heartier variety of coffee. It is native to the lowland forests of the Congo River and is adapted to be a mid story tree in and dense equatorial rainforest but it is not well suited to temperature extremes. As temperature is generally related to elevation, Robusta coffee grows better at lower elevations and is primarily grown in Vietnam, Republic of Congo, Angola, Madagascar, Ivory Coast, Uganda, and parts of Brazil. Approximately 20% of the coffee produced in the world is of the Robusta variety and much of it is blended with the higher quality Arabica or reserved for coffee flavorings and freeze dried coffees.
Colombian coffee is well known but it is not the top producer of coffee; that spot is held by Brazil which produces about a third of all coffee grown in the world with 80% of that being Arabica. However, Colombia has the distinction of producing high quality coffee on small family farms due to the unique rugged landscape of the country.
Climate Change and Coffee Production
Climate change threatens to alter the distribution of coffee production and the lifecycle of the coffee plant. Coffee ripens more quickly as temperatures rise and this leads to lower quality beans. The International Coffee Organization estimates that if global warming increases temperate only a few degrees Centigrade, the growing region for the highland adapted, and better quality, Arabica coffee will increase about 15 feet per year and may place the coffee crop in competition with other food crops or be more difficult to grow due to inadequate soil of higher elevations, inappropriate rainfall patterns, exposure to new and increased pests, or even simple absence of infrastructure.
In Uganda, the production of Robusta coffee has already been adversely affected by climate change which has affected regional weather patterns. In recent years, Uganda has experienced an drier conditions during the normally rainy season of spring and early summer and heavier and more destructive rains towards the end of the year. Flooding, landslides, and soil erosion are becoming common and Uganda’s coffee crop is in danger of extinction if temperatures continue to increase.
The potential impacts from global warming can have significant impacts on the geographic distribution of the coffee belt. Even small changes in climate can catastrophically change the where coffee is grown and can critically impact family farmers in developing counties and rural areas where economic development is limited. Economies that currently depend on the sale and export of coffee beans are presently implementing mitigation and adaptation strategies to slow the effects of global warming on the coffee production. For example, some farmers have planted more shade trees to create cooler temperatures for growing coffee and mulching the soil to retain moisture. The long-term effects of climate change and these potential adaptive strategies remain to be seen.
Source: International Coffee Organization http://www.ico.org/index.asp
Maps on the Geography of Coffee
- r = Coffea robusta
- m = Coffea robusta & Coffea arabica
- a = Coffea arabica