El Niño is a Big Threat to Robusta Coffee Farms in Brazil

“…El Niño could reach strong intensity in the second half of 2023…”

Fernando Maximiliano is a market intelligence analyst at StoneX Brasil, graduated in agronomy at the Federal Institute of Espírito Santo.

Fernando Maximiliano, market intelligence analyst at StoneX Brasil

AgriBrasilis – Can the El Niño cause a drastic drop in the Robusta coffee crop in Brazil?

Fernando Maximiliano – It would be imprudent to say for sure that there will be a drop in Robusta coffee production. This depends on factors linked to the climate, and those predictions have a certain level of imprecision.

We can assess what would be the possible impacts in an El Niño scenario. There is a forecast for a strong El Niño to occur in the second half of 2023 and early 2024.

In a way, the occurrence of the phenomenon in 2023-2024 is similar to what was observed in 2015, when a strong El Niño occurred at the end of that year and at the beginning of 2016. At that time, Brazilian production had a reduction of more than 38% in two years as a result of the impacts of the phenomenon. However, there are some differences that show that the impact in 2024 should not be so severe.

AgriBrasilis – Are these risks the same for Arabica coffee?

Fernando Maximiliano – Not necessarily. Considering the occurrence of the phenomenon between 2014 and 2016, which was the last period with a prolonged and strong El Niño, the impact was severe for the Brazilian Robusta coffee production, but the Brazilian arabica crop showed a different trend, advancing more than 22% between 2014 and 2016.

AgriBrasilis – What is the predicted intensity of this weather phenomenon?

Fernando Maximiliano – In the latest update of the forecast models made available by the IRI/CPC/NOAA, we observed the indication that El Niño could reach a strong intensity in the second half of 2023 and at the beginning of 2024, with a peak between the months of November, December, and January. According to the probabilistic model, there is a 76% chance that the phenomenon will keep happening until the FMA quarter (February, March, and April) of 2024.

This scenario is worrisome precisely because of the stages of development of Robusta coffee that will take place at the peak of the El Niño. For most of the Robusta coffee regions, the crops will go through the period of expansion and filling – or graining – of the coffee fruits, stages that are crucial to define the yields of the crop and that require favorable climatic conditions to reach its full potential.

AgriBrasilis – Is a 40% productivity drop, as occurred in 2014 – 2016, possible?

Fernando Maximiliano – There are 4 major differences between the conditions of those years and the current scenario:

  1. Period of occurrence of El Niño: Despite the similarity with the El Niño of 2015, which had strong intensity at the end of the year and beginning of the following year, the data show the duration of the phenomenon was much longer in 2015. At that time, El Niño started in the third quarter of 2014, lasted until the first half of 2015 with weak/moderate intensity, and only in the second half of 2015 it reached strong intensity. In 2023, the conditions are different. El Niño is only starting in the second half of the year, with the first half of 2023 in neutral conditions and with satisfactory volumes of rain in the regions.
  2. Efficiency of irrigation systems: In 2014 and 2015, even though most of the crops in Espírito Santo and southern Bahia already had irrigation systems in place, a large part of them consisted of inefficient systems in terms of water use, such as sprinkler systems, for example, which contributed to the depletion of water resources for irrigation. Currently, most of the implanted irrigation systems are drip irrigation, which is very efficient and economical in the use of water. Not to mention the numerous technologies implemented, such as irrigation management and automation systems.
  3. Reservoirs: In the last water crisis faced by farmers in the States of Espírito Santo and Southern Bahia, they did not have as many water reservoirs as they currently do. After the crisis, there was a strong investment both by the private initiative, the farmers, and by the public initiative in the construction of water reservoirs.
  4. Prohibition of water usage: Finally, in response to severe water scarcity, the public authorities prohibited water usage for irrigation purposes, prioritizing the use of water for human consumption, which further aggravated the conditions of the Robusta coffee plantations. In 2023, in view of the big volumes of rain received in the regions and the water reservoirs, there is no expectation that such a drastic measure will be taken.

AgriBrasilis – Can irrigation systems mitigate the effects of the El Niño?

Fernando Maximiliano – The use of irrigation systems is the farmer’s greatest ally in dealing with a possible situation of lower rainfall and high temperatures. However, even if irrigation is used, on very hot days the volume of water lost by the leaves is greater than what the roots are able to absorb, causing the plants to wilt, which can negatively impact the fruit development. In addition, the incidence of sunlight can cause burns on the leaves and fruits, a condition known as sun-scald.

AgriBrasilis – Are coffee farmers prepared in Brazil?

Fernando Maximiliano – Undoubtedly farmers are more prepared than in 2014 – 2016, in view of the widespread use of modern and efficient irrigation systems. However, it is important for the farmers to be aware of the possible impacts of El Niño and to make decisions focused on good management of the available water resources.



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