Friday, Feb. 23, 2024 |
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Coffee cherry grows at the Kona Coffee Living History Farm in Captain Cook. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file)
Alex Kempton picks coffee at Rancho Aloha in Holualoa. (Photos by Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file )
Green Kona Coffee cherry grows in the Coffee Belt. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file)
Kona Coffee Cherry grows in the coffee belt. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
Coffee is picked at Ueshima Coffee Farm in Holualoa.
Gary Strawn shows ripe coffee cherry at his Kona Earth Coffee Farm in Holualoa for the Kona Coffee Festival farm tour.
KAILUA-KONA — Climate change poses a viable threat to coffee production around the world, yet Hawaii appears more immune to its impacts than most other coffee-heavy regions — at least for now.
Minor changes to average temperature, excessive drought or uncharacteristically heavy rainfall brought on by alterations to the environment can affect coffee production extensively.
These effects have manifested for years in the form of lower crop yields across regions in Central America, India and Africa, along with resulting price increases throughout the global market. To combat growing concerns, farmers in these areas have begun transitioning from the typically tastier Arabica varieties of bean to the sturdier, albeit less delectable, Robusta bean varieties or various hybrids.
Ken Love, executive director of Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers, said he’s unaware of any farmers in Kona growing any variation of Robusta. Typica, a variety of Arabica known for its flavor profile, continues to dominate the mountainside.
But if climate conditions or other factors ever force Hawaii farmers to transition to new varieties of coffee, the economic effects could prove dramatic.
“We have to have a really high quality to compete,” said Shawn Steiman, co-owner of Daylight Mind Coffee Co. in Kona and consultant with Coffea Consulting. “The reality is our coffee is incredibly more expensive than anywhere else. It has to taste really good or it will never work.”
More than weather
to worry about
Love cited several reasons he doesn’t believe climate change has or will hit the crop in Hawaii nearly as hard as has been observed in other coffee centers throughout the world.
“We’re at the perfect latitude,” Love explained. “It’s more the ideal temperature here.”
He added while droughts come to Hawaii more frequently than before and heavy rainfall events can pose problems, Hawaii’s drainage is superb.
The geographical buffers afforded Hawaii via its mid-ocean location also mitigate the havoc weather events can bring down upon the state’s coffee industry, said Andrea Kawabata, a University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources extension agent based in Kainaliu.
Climate change doesn’t only affect heat and rainfall, however. The coffee berry borer, the most recent scourge on the Kona industry, is bolstered by rising temperatures, Steiman said.
Other pests and diseases, like coffee rust, have a harder time taking down Robusta, which gives farmers everywhere, including Hawaii, something to think about.
“Farmers are always dependent on weather, so if the climate is turning harsh, they’re going to be looking for hybrid coffees that are going to withstand that,” Kawabata said. “But on top of that, they need to be aware of the pests and diseases these plants may not be tolerant to, so they want to breed that into it also.”
And, of course, there’s always taste to consider.
Kona isn’t staring down the barrel of an immediate coffee crisis, and because of that, Steiman believes most farms are operating with an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality.
He added he can’t envision a future in which Hawaii farmers would transition away from the beans that currently thrive here and move at high prices on the market.
But in the future, more resilient hybrids may become a necessity for the industry if it’s to remain a robust sector of Hawaii’s economy. Research on such hybrids, however, while potentially crucial, remains scarce throughout the state.
The future of coffee in Hawaii
Chifumi Nagai, a coffee breeder with the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center, is one of only a handful of local researchers working on hybrids.
She has spent the last 20 years developing approximately 100 coffee “crosses” with two goals in mind — to create a variety of coffee with a unique taste specific to Hawaii that is also resistant to coffee rust. The disease has yet to find its way to the state, Nagai said, but if it ever does, the results could be catastrophic.
Of her 100 crosses, Nagai said around 20 are promising, as there are thousands of components to consider in the complex process.
Testing results in Hawaii is problematic, however, because rust doesn’t exist here. She said HARC is attempting to collaborate with organizations in large coffee centers such as Brazil and Colombia that have been engaged in similar work for the last half century, but that hasn’t yet happened.
Nagai said securing funding for all facets of the work is an ongoing concern.
Beyond breeding her own new varieties of coffee, Nagai said another method is to import hybrids cultivated in other countries and test their viability as alternatives in Hawaii.
This should only be done by professionals, she explained, citing the danger of any local farmers importing unroasted beans without going through the proper channels, as such action could result in bringing the dreaded rust or other diseases to the islands.
Working with World Coffee Research of Texas, Nagai and Tracie Matsumoto, a horticulturist with the U.S. Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo, are hoping to start trials this year on approximately 30 rust-resistant crosses to see which might thrive in Hawaii’s climate and cup well.
Nagai explained that varying temperatures or water supplies due to climate change may impact a coffee’s flavor even if the particular bean is still able to grow.
As far as she’s aware, no researcher or organization has yet found a definitive solution to combat the threats climate change poses to coffee across the world, although many are working toward that end.
“I don’t think anybody has guaranteed resistance to temperature change or water deficiency right now,” Nagai said.
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