Your morning coffee is under threat from Brazil’s drought
What’s happening? A severe drought in Brazil, the world’s leading exporter of coffee, orange juice and sugar, has prompted concerns that famers will exhaust the water reserves required to keep crops alive during the country’s dry season. As a result, the country’s coffee and orange output may see its second consecutive year of decline. The current orange crop has shrunk 31% YoY, the most in 33 years, while the production of arabica coffee has also fallen. The crisis has come at a time when agricultural crops have reached multi-year highs, raising the threat of food inflation. (Bloomberg)
Why does this matter? Well, it’s important we get a handle on climate change, as climate-driven drought conditions has the potential to lead to severe disruptions in global food production and security.
Climate change is shrinking the production capacity of agriculture systems. With current productivity 21% lower than 1961 levels, less food is being produced using more resources to supply increasing demand. Given that developing nations are typically more vulnerable to the physical impacts of climate change, the risk of interruptions to supplies of major crops are concerning.
Hang on, did you say disruptions to coffee? Indeed. Studies have suggested that by mid-century, around 50% of land used for the high-quality crop will be unproductive. In the US, drought-driven decreased crop production has contributed to coffee stockpiles sinking to a six-year low. More broadly, global food costs climbed for 12 consecutive months in May, according to UN estimates. In Brazil, food costs rose to a two-decade high by 14%, with staple food crops such as rice grains seeing steep rises of 76%.
Past surges in the price of food items have been linked to periods of social unrest, such as the Arab Spring. Volatile inflation of food staples triggered protests across Sudan in February, resulting in the government declaring a state of emergency. Rising food prices could also push more populations into hunger, which have already been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Accelerating rates of climate change are not helping either.
So how bad is the drought? Rainfall levels in Brazil have been exceptionally low this year, with some of worst-hit areas such as Minas Gerais and Sao Paulo receiving less-than-half of normal precipitation levels between January to April – a period particularly important for soil to store water ahead of the dry season.
Well then… what can be done? While the most effective solution requires tackling climate change on a global scale, some techniques are being explored to improve food production in more locally. Last year, less water-intensive rice strains that are more resilient to drought were developed in a partnership with the UN Environment Programme. Argentina also became the first nation to approve the use of a gene-edited, drought-resistant variety of wheat. Elsewhere, Indian coffee farmers are looking at technology, such as apps, to improve crop yields by predicting local weather, measuring crop conditions and detecting plant diseases.