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Will coffee prices climb with climate change?

Coffee growers could have to move to higher altitudes — meaning higher prices but maybe tastier brews.

Cappuccinos made with Guatemalan coffee are served at a cafe in Guatemala City, June 8, 2006. (Daniel LeClair/Reuters)

COLOMBA, Guatemala — For as long as they can remember, the farmers who grow coffee between the steep volcanic peaks here started the annual harvest in late September — until this year.

An erratic rainy season forced the farmers of the Santa Anita La Union Cooperative in this small town in Guatemala’s highlands to start picking coffee in the final days of August.

“Instead of raining constantly and slowly, it is raining very hard for short periods of time. And the temperatures are hotter, so that means the fruit, the coffee, is ripening very fast,” said Mynor Huerta, who provides technical assistance to the cooperative, as rain clouds gurgled overhead.

While this year’s early harvest may prove to be a climatic anomaly, researchers say that it could be a forecast for coffee in the region.

The same conditions that have made Central America home to some of the world’s finest coffees also make it susceptible to the effects of climate change. Its moderate temperatures are already rising, its predictable rainy season is becoming irregular, and pests and fungi could invade altitudes where they previously couldn’t live. Although seemingly minor, small increases in temperature and slight changes in rainfall are predicted to have major consequences in coffee growing areas. While the conditions might make high-quality coffees more abundant and cheaper for a few years, the price will eventually rise as availability sinks in the long term, researchers said.

As a result of climate change, Central America farmers might have to move their crops to higher elevations, where less land is less available.

“Farmers are going to have to try to squeeze onto that land,” said Rafael A. Diaz, a Costa Rican economist who is part of a four-country research project aimed at documenting the effects of climate change on small coffee farmers.

The changes could be devastating for farmers, who will eventually be forced to replace their coffee trees with another crop to survive. Coffee, the world’s second-largest traded commodity behind petroleum, supports around 25 million growers and 100 million people around the globe once family members are added.

At the Santa Anita Cooperative, farmers said they have already felt a change. Climatic evidence is supporting them. The weather center nearest their farms has recorded a .5 degree Celsius increase in temperatures and a 14 percent increase in average rainfall from the 1990s to the 2000s, according to data from the country’s weather ministry.

A recent study by the Center for Tropical Agricultural Research said just a 1 degree Celsius rise in Brazil’s Sao Paulo growing region, for instance, would cause a drop in coffee production worth more than $113 million.

Central America is one of the regions likely to get both hotter and drier in coming decades. In the short term, that could actually help the few farmers growing high-quality coffees at high altitudes.