We drink about 150 liters of coffee per person in the Netherlands every year. However, due to climate change, Brazil will soon become too hot to grow coffee beans. Fortunately, there is hope: tall shade trees on coffee plantations can provide cooling.

The climate crisis is already causing heat, drought and extreme rainfall in Brazil. As a result, the harvests of coffee farmers are becoming increasingly uncertain. Will coffee soon become an expensive delicacy?

Not if we adapt to climate change, say researchers Lucas de Carvalho Gomes and Felix Bianchi of Wageningen University & Research and the University of Viçosa in Brazil. Trees on coffee plantations protect against extreme weather.

"Coffee plants are sensitive to temperature fluctuations, but calculations show that shade trees can secure 75 percent of the current coffee area." Felix Bianchi, researcher at Wageningen University

The research shows that the temperature in Zona de Mata, an important coffee area, will rise by 1.7 degrees in 2050. "If we don't do anything, only 40 percent of the researched area is left to grow coffee, the rest is too hot," Bianchi tells NU.nl.

"Coffee plants are sensitive to temperature fluctuations, but calculations show that shade trees can secure 75 percent of the current coffee area."

Brazilian coffee plantation, in which coffee bushes alternate with shade trees. (Photo: Eduardo Sousa)

Advantages of agroforestry

The use of trees and shrubs in agriculture is called agroforestry. This form of agriculture contains different types of perennial plants, such as fruit and nut trees and fruit bushes. The diversity of species makes the agricultural system resistant to extreme weather, pests and diseases.

Coffee fields now consist of plants of one kind: a monoculture. Due to extreme weather and pests, the entire crop can easily fail. But a field of coffee plants interspersed with different types of trees provides cooling and protects the coffee plants from heavy rainfall, the study shows.

"More birds and insects provide natural pest control, so you have to use fewer pesticides" Felix Bianchi, researcher at Viçosa University

"An additional advantage is that it increases biodiversity," says Bianchi. "More birds and insects provide natural pest control, so you have to use fewer pesticides."

"There are more benefits," said Felipe Villela from Brazil on the phone. He is an agroforestry expert and founder of ReNature Foundation. With agroforestry you retain more water on the land because the soil improves. The plants and soil store on average three times as much CO2 per hectare as a piece of land with only one crop.

According to Villela, an agroforestry farmer can double the harvest in six to eight years because the amount and quality of the coffee beans is increasing. In addition, income increases due to the sale of the products that the trees supply, such as bananas, mahogany and macadamia nuts. Another advantage: "Agroforestry for coffee cultivation can be widely used".

'Coffee farmers cannot survive without innovation'

Villela sees that heat and drought (also due to deforestation of the Amazon) are already causing problems in coffee cultivation. "Our example farm is getting a lot of interest from the coffee farmers in the area," he says.

"If the Brazilian coffee farmers do not innovate, they will not make it. They are motivated to make the switch, but they do need financial and technical support." Scientist Bianchi: "When I see what the climate forecasts are, agroforestry is a good option. We as researchers come up with the right information, so that farmers can make a good choice."

That is why they share knowledge about agroforestry with coffee farmers, such as a list of suitable tree species. "Agroforestry offers so many advantages that the new generation of farmers now also sees a future in coffee cultivation in harmony with nature," says Villela. In this way, our cup of comfort can remain affordable.