India’s brewing concerns on coffee production

Climate change is significantly impacting coffee production in India, with rising temperatures and erratic weather patterns disrupting ideal growing conditions. This is leading to reduced yields and increased vulnerability to pests, particularly for Arabica and Robusta varieties. Small-scale coffee growers are bearing the brunt of these changes, and the reduction in coffee production is also contributing to deforestation as shade trees are removed.

As climate change continues to threaten the industry, exploring more resilient coffee varieties and sustainable farming practices becomes crucial to secure the future of coffee production in India.

Coffee

Image source: Pixabay

The first coffee plantations for commerce were established in the 18th century. Since then, the Indian coffee industry has advanced quickly and developed a unique position on the global coffee map. India’s coffee is grown in ecologically sensitive areas of the Western and Eastern Ghats, where it is shaded by a thick natural canopy. This is one of the 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world. Coffee is crucial to maintaining the region’s distinctive biodiversity and is also responsible for socio-economic growth in the remote, hilly areas.

Currently, climate change’s unpredictable weather patterns and rising temperatures pose a significant concern for Indian coffee production, as it can lead to altered growing conditions and increased vulnerability to pests and diseases, ultimately affecting crop yields and quality.

Coffee production

According to the USDA, Foreign Agriculture Services, world coffee production for the year 2023-24 is forecast to be 4.3 million bags (60 kilograms) higher than 2022-23 year to 174.3 million. With more supply, it is anticipated that worldwide exports will increase from 5.8 million bags to 122.2 million, mostly due to robust shipments from Brazil. With global consumption expected to reach a new high of 170.2 million bags, ending inventories are expected to remain low at 31.8 million bags.

According to the Coffee Board’s post-blossom or early estimates, India’s coffee crop for the 2023-24 crop year, which begins in October, will likely be higher at 3.74 lakh tonnes (lt). This is 6.25% higher than the final 2022-23 crop estimate of 3.52 lakh tonnes. The Board anticipates that Arabica output will be higher, at 1.13 lakh tonnes, compared to 1 lakh tonnes in the current season. Similarly, robusta production is expected to increase to 2.61 lakh tonnes from 2.52 lakh tonnes.

Production of coffee in major states of India
State Post Blossom Estimate 2023-2024 Final Estimate 2022-2023
Arabica Robusta Total Arabica Robusta Total
Karnataka 81,960 184,925 266,885 72,020 176,000 248,020
Kerala 2,075 70,750 72,825 1,975 70,450 72,425
Tamil Nadu 13,045 5,390 18,435 13,250 5,450 18,700
Andhra Pradesh 15,340 40 15,380 12,225 40 12,265
Orissa 500 0 500 465 0 465
North Eastern Region 80 95 175 65 60 125
Grand Total (India) 113,000 261,200 374,200 100,000 252,000 352,000

Source:  Coffee Board, Values in metric ton

Coffee production

Image source: Coffee Board

Of the 3.5 lakh tonnes of coffee India produces, Karnataka is responsible for 70.5% or 2.5 lakh tonnes which is grown on approximately 2.4 lakh hectares, followed by Kerala (20.6%), Tamil Nadu (5.3%), Andhra Pradesh (3.5%), Odisha (0.1%) and Northeastern region (0.0%). The ideal temperature for arabica is 22°C while it is a little higher for robusta, at 27°C, making elevated areas like Chikkamagaluru, Hassan and Kodagu in Karnataka suitable for its cultivation.

Coffee’s quantity exports trend
S.No. HS Code Commodity 2018-19 2019-20 2020-21 2021-22 2022-23
1 090111 Coffee neither roadted nor decaffinated 238,252.54 211,756.20 204,572.52 283,932.92 260,958.78
2 090121 Roasted not decaffinated coffee 234.9 161.76 194.11 532.09 284.69
3 090190 Other coffee 1,052.47 927.19 1,153.28 399.49 657.76
4 090112 Not roasted but deaffinated coffee 222.45 58.38 116.7 395.29 426.5
5 090122 Roasted decaffinated coffee 2.73 4.17 6.46 101.08 24.77

Source: Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Quantity in thousands

Impact of climate change on coffee production

Coffee requires a very unique climatic condition. Any alteration in precipitation and temperature pattern reduces coffee production while concurrently amplifying susceptibility to pest infestation. The ideal temperature for arabica is 22°C while it is a little higher for robusta, at 27 °C, making elevated areas like Chikkamagaluru, Hassan and Kodagu in Karnataka suitable for its cultivation.

Somashekhargouda Patil, a scientist at the Coffee Board’s Central Coffee Research Institute, said, “However, now we are observing temperatures of over 35°C, and in some areas of Kodagu, it’s even crossed 38°C, this increase in temperature is affecting production.” Warmer temperatures have led to increased pest attacks as well.

Along with this, the variation in rainfall is another source of anxiety for farmers. The cycle of the coffee bean is such that rain is essential in February and March during flowering (for robusta, and a little later for arabica), in what’s called “blossom showers, and later in June and July the fruit develops. Then clear skies in December and January are necessary for coffee picking. However, this pattern is changing.

In India, small holdings of less than 2 hectares make up the bulk of cultivation, at 81%. Small farmers feel the impact of climate change much more because they plan from one year to the next. Though not as vulnerable as other marginal farmers, small coffee farmers too face difficulties in loan repayments, etc. due to crop failure.

Coffee cultivation in India is grown under an agro-forestry system, which contributes to the unique cup quality of Indian coffee by inducing volatiles from other plants. This is especially important in the current global climate scenario, where climate change is gaining significance. Shade-grown Indian Robusta is attracting global coffee customers due to its premium cup quality and the shortage of Arabica in the global market. With the upcoming EU Deforestation Regulation (EUDR), Indian coffee from non-deforested coffee may receive additional benefits, says M B Ganapathy, executive vice president, of sustainability operations, Tata Coffee.

However, this in turn is leading to deforestation with shade trees being cut down since robusta requires more direct sunlight. In 2013-14, 66% of the coffee produced in India was robusta, inching up to 72% in 2022-23. Increasing the number of shade trees is very important to mitigate the fallout of climate change-induced rise in temperatures, says Somashekhargouda Patil, a scientist at the Coffee Board’s Central Coffee Research Institute.

He adds, First and foremost, we’re advising coffee planters to maintain shade. Arabica requires 50-60% of shade while robusta needs 42-50%. Farmers remove shade to get higher yields but the effect lasts only for a couple of years.”

There are planters exploring alternatives to arabica and robusta, which might be more resilient to drought and other changes in weather, too.

At the recently concluded World Coffee Conference in Bengaluru, a global event India hosted for the first time, speaker after speaker highlighted that climate change is now the biggest disruptor for coffee. A 2022 study found that globally, the areas highly suitable for coffee cultivation are expected to halve by 2050 and moderately suitable areas by a third. With the cool climes of areas in Karnataka producing over 50% of India’s coffee, farmers in the region are bearing the brunt.

Key challenges to coffee production growth

Coffee production in India is facing several challenges that are affecting the sustainability of the plantation crop. Here are some of the challenges faced by coffee production in India:

  • Climate change: There is unpredictable weather patterns, including insufficient rainfall, temperature fluctuations, and water scarcity, are affecting coffee growth in India. The distribution and quantum of precipitation have been distorted and have had a significant impact on coffee’s growth and development.
  • Pests and diseases: Coffee plants are susceptible to pests and diseases, which can reduce yields and quality. The increase in the cost of input fertiliser is also another challenge for coffee growers.
  • Inadequate infrastructure: Coffee cultivation requires substantial initial investments in land preparation, planting, infrastructure, and inputs, which can be a barrier for small-scale farmers or those with limited financial resources.
  • Volatility in coffee prices: Coffee prices are often volatile and can be affected by global market conditions, which can impact the profitability of coffee farmers.
  • Lack of skilled workforce: There is an acute shortage of skilled plantation labour in India, which can affect the productivity and quality of coffee.
  • High production costs: The cost of production is increasing due to the labour shortage on coffee plantations, which can make it difficult for coffee farmers to compete with other countries.

According to Dr. M. Senthilkumar, Director of Research at the Central Coffee Research Institute, Coffee Board of India, the challenges in coffee production include increased temperature and prolonged dry spells affect bud development, leading to poor flowering and fruit set. Additionally, Changing climatic conditions exacerbate issues with pests and diseases, such as White stem Borer, Coffee Leaf Rust, and Monsoon rots. Furthermore, declining soil health and the need for increased nutrients in leached coffee soils raise input costs. Unexpected rains during harvest have become common, affecting both quantity and quality.

Future outlook

The future outlook of coffee production in India is influenced by a combination of factors, including climate change, evolving agricultural practices, market dynamics, and sustainability concerns. The industry’s resilience and growth will depend on how well it responds to these evolving dynamics and challenges.

Dr. M. Senthilkumar also explains that India’s reputation for producing shade-grown coffee and conserving forest ecosystems has indeed provided benefits in the export market. The unique qualities of Indian coffees, including shade-grown, handpicked, and sun-dried characteristics, are highly sought after in the world market. Shade-grown coffees are known for their superior quality and taste, as the shaded environment results in more even ripening and a refined flavor profile. Consequently, coffee grown under shade fetches better prices in the international market. India is actively promoting specialty coffees such as Mysore nugget bold, Robusta Kaapi Royale, and Monsooned Malabar coffees both domestically and internationally, further enhancing its position in the global coffee market.

Planters in the contemporary agricultural landscape are implementing a multifaceted approach to address the challenges posed by climate change. One of the pivotal strategies is rainwater harvesting, which enables them to efficiently meet water requirements in the face of erratic rainfall patterns. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices have gained prominence as a sustainable solution to combat pest incidences, reducing the reliance on chemical pesticides. The integration of weather monitoring systems with advanced data analysis aids in predicting adverse weather conditions, allowing for proactive measures.

Moreover, the identification of elite plant varieties that are resistant to drought, pests, and diseases, and tailored to specific geographic locations, is a promising approach to enhancing climate resilience within plantations. These measures collectively represent a comprehensive response to the ever-growing challenges of climate change, reflecting the proactive nature of research and agricultural practices in India.

To overcome these challenges, the government can aid through policies, incentives, research funds, and subsidies aimed at supporting coffee farmers. Additionally, coffee farmers can adopt modern farming techniques and technologies, such as artificial rains during droughts, proper irrigation, and soil-friendly organic fertilisers. Improving the climate resilience of India’s coffee sector is also essential to securing its future.

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