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Ethiopia is known as the birthplace of Coffea Arabica, the species responsible for more than 70 percent of global coffee production.

Coffee also generates a quarter of the country’s export earnings – a value of $800 million in 2015/2016.

But the plant – and the 15 million Ethiopian people who rely on coffee production for their livelihood – are in jeopardy due to a changing climate.

A study published this week in Nature Plants reports that coffee growing areas in Ethiopia could decrease by more than half with a temperature rise of 4C by the end of the century.

“We show that 39 to 59 percent of the current growing area could experience climatic changes that are large enough to render them unsuitable for coffee farming, in the absence of significant interventions or major influencing factors,” wrote the study authors.

The temperature increase noted by the researchers is based on greenhouse gas emissions remaining on the higher-end of the model spectrum from now until 2100. But even when considering more conservative estimates, Ethiopian coffee growing areas are still projected to shrink by about 55 percent.

Certain parts of the country have already experienced declines of 15 to 20 percent since the 1970s, which have been attributed to a changing climate.

Historical climate data supports reports from coffee farmers, showing that the mean annual temperature has increased in the country by 1.3 C between 1960 and 2006 and rainfall has declined by nearly 40 inches. Farmers report that these changes are negatively impacting their production yields.

Specific changes include uncertainty of yearly weather patterns including precipitation and timing of wet season, extended dry seasons, more extreme ends to the dry seasons and warmer nights, according to the study authors.

The researchers used satellite imagery and climate models to calculate the projected coffee growth area losses. They validated the model’s accuracy by conducting “ground-truthing” research, which included visiting sites captured by the satellite images to see the effects of climate change first-hand.

They also found areas that could be suitable for growth if farmers were able to relocate their production, most of which reside at higher altitudes.

The majority of coffee in Ethiopia and East Africa is grown in forest-like habitats, or areas with at least partial sun coverage. But higher temperatures and less overall rainfall are leaving hundreds, and potentially even thousands of hectares of coffee lands dead.

The authors do share some potentially good news, however. With proper action, such as relocation of growing areas and conservation efforts, Ethiopia actually could see significant growth – up to four times area growth increase compared to the ‘worst case scenario’ forecast effects.

Another potential avenue of hope for the continued growth of coffee in Ethiopia and elsewhere can be found in gene-editing.

The complete genome sequence for C. Arabica was made publicly available earlier this year.

"This new genome sequence for Coffea arabica contains information crucial for developing high-quality, disease-resistant coffee varieties that can adapt to the climate changes that are expected to threaten global coffee production in the next 30 years," said Juan Medrano, a geneticist in the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and co-researcher on the sequencing effort, in a January statement.

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