Adapting tropical agriculture to climate change

The climate threat to crops

Rising temperatures are a destructive force for crops worldwide. Climate change and the phenomena it exacerbates drive wilting and premature ripening, which has a devastating knock-on effect on the surrounding vegetation. And on the farmers, too, of course: once areas become unsuitable for their current crop output, they are forced to shift cultivation to different crops. This in turn can drive deforestation or other habitat loss in frontier areas where agriculture borders areas of high biodiversity. 

The issue is particularly prevalent in the tropics, and especially so in coffee cultivation. Estimates currently put up to 50% of coffee-cultivated lands at risk of elimination from climate change by 2050. As coffee tends to do better at higher altitudes, the resulting coffee migration to remaining highland areas will drive habitat loss in important upland zones. It is unclear whether there is currently a feasible plan to deal with this challenge. This is just as true for coffee as it is for many other tropical frontier crops.

Delivering solutions through venture

We create ventures focused on a specific outcome within areas of need: Opportunity Areas (OA). This OA is focused on developing interventions against thermal stress that will cause frontier crop migration into new areas, with an initial focus on coffee in the tropics. The market is attractive at $102.02bn and the preponderance of smallholders (25 million of which produce 70-80 percent of the world's coffee) means there is significant upside to involving them as agents of biodiversity conservation. 

The OA forms part of our Tropical Agriculture & Bioeconomy Initiative (TABI) programme based in Costa Rica. With 10% of its land devoted to cultivation of key crops, including coffee, and leading research partners joining our program, Costa Rica can serve not only as a research base for any relevant companies in this space, but also as a commercial market. Candidates working in this OA will be able to work with scientists at CATIE, which is a partner of our program in Costa Rica, and home to the International Coffee Collection, made of up nearly 2,000 accessions of principally commercial coffee species and the most diverse collection of Arabica in the world.

Ultimately we aspire to look beyond Costa Rica: our goal is to identify and scale up technical approaches that can keep existing coffee farms in business, aiming to enhance their yields and profits whilst also preventing agricultural expansion and reducing their environmental footprint. We also expect to be able to apply innovation in coffee production systems to many other crops facing the thermal resilience challenge, which is especially profound in the tropics and deserts. 

Gaps of knowledge in coffee are representative of gaps across tropical crops, including nutritional assimilate partitioning, hormonal relations, carbon and nitrogen metabolism, defence mechanisms against oxidative stress, etc. There is a huge array of approaches we are considering, but to keep it simple, we’ll offer a glimpse into a few key areas here. 

Tackling oxidative stress

The key driver of thermal damage at the molecular level is oxidative stress. Although a considerable amount of research on coffee physiology has been undertaken, much less research has been devoted to identifying responses and mechanisms of tolerance to unfavourable temperatures, and translating this into useful treatments that can stimulate or simulate those responses in plants in the field. 

Oxidative stress interventions could focus on reducing energy absorption by encouraging leaf movements, applying reflecting surfaces, moving chloroplasts around within the plant, or decreasing chlorophyll content in general.  Improved photochemical use of energy could be achieved through the reinforcement of thylakoid electron transport components. Application of reactive oxygen species scavenger knowledge in other biology fields could be explored more in the context of coffee or other plants. A consolidated acclimation could also involve long-term structural changes at the membrane level, namely in lipids and protein components, and the architecture of these in the cell. Ideally all such interventions could be cheaply and reliably applied, at the right times, either through foliar or soil treatments. 

Rethinking controlled environments

Wind, water and temperature control are important intervention points, and there is already wide use of controlled environments or pseudo controlled environments to enable this. Various low-tech approaches are used to maximise shading and water retention and reduce thermal and wind stress. Greenhouses are used experimentally, or often for younger plants. Larger farms may use centre pivot irrigation without shade in extensive production systems, whereas smallholder farms may deploy water spigots or artificial netting shades, and rarely make use of greenhouses due to the higher costs. Further they may struggle to access water for irrigation due to a lack of infrastructure in mountainous areas, changing rainfall patterns, or lack of deployed water storage.

While controlled environments are a crowded space in temperate regions, their effective deployment in the context of tropical smallholders requires lowering materials costs and business model innovation to support long-term payback to a provider. The advantages of such systems extend beyond water, wind and temperature control - and there is an opportunity to create connected smart greenhouses that improve decision making by the farmer. This could enable smart agriculture enabled greenhouses which prevent multiple issues from interfering with long term yields, and reduce costs by encouraging appropriate amendment recycling within a more closed loop system. However, one issue to keep in mind with any kind of intervention with a closed or semi-loop is the spectre of fungal disease, which has been a key blocker to deploying such systems in the past. Having said that, low cost and accessible controlled environments could easily stop thermal stress from occuring in the first place, and with appropriate air control, could also reduce incidence of fungal diseases prevalent in the tropics. 

Create ventures with us

While we are exploring a variety of approaches - alongside the one outlined above - our general thinking revolves around some key priorities and considerations. These include: ensuring that the technology or products are accessible to remote customers; being conscious of costs and making sure the intervention is cost-effective and financially sustainable; involving finance blended with tech to give access to smallholders (who dominate the industry), while at the same time, being alive to the fact that not all coffee systems are the same across the board. 

If this is an area of interest to you and you have experience with plant biochemistry or with small-holder production systems, we want to hear from you! More details on the specifics of this role can be found in this job description.

More details on the Tropical Agriculture & Bioeconomy Initiative programme can be found here.