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What is the Climatic Phenomenon of El Niño (Part 1)? A Q&A with Oscar Fernando Hurtado from Sucafina.

Posted by Ana Valencia on August 8, 2023 at 3:24 PM


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Today, we will be delving into a topic on the minds of many in recent months: the renowned climatic phenomenon known as El Niño. To help us better understand this phenomenon, we have invited Oscar Fernando Hurtado, Director of Research and Data Analysis for Latin America at Sucafina, to share his insights.


Sustainable Harvest (SH): It's a pleasure to have you with us, Oscar. 


Oscar Fernando (OF): Thank you for the invitation; it is a trending topic! After having experienced La Niña, we are now entering El Niño. So, it's a good time to talk about this topic that, as you mentioned, is on the minds of all producers.


SH: Of course, let's see, tell us, what is this thing about "my cousin," "the neighbor," El Niño (the boy) or La Niña (the girl)? What are we talking about?


OF: Indeed, we are talking about El Niño. This phenomenon, a climatic anomaly, is essentially caused by warming over the Pacific Ocean. This leads to disruptions in the climate patterns across the world, from Africa to the Americas, Europe, and Asia. So, it's crucial to understand it sufficiently to adapt effectively to these phenomena.


SH: What could be the potential causes of this phenomenon, and which regions does it affect the most? How does it manifest in different parts of the world?


OF: This climatic anomaly is caused by the warming of the Pacific Ocean. Usually, it occurs between the coasts of Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador and extends as far as the shores of Australia. As you can see, it's a broad area of the Pacific where this warming over the Pacific Ocean occurs. Additionally, this leads to a change in the pattern of winds, which results in precipitation shifting from one region to another.


Now, what are the regions that are at greater risk, with more significant impacts? Colombia and Central America face a substantial decrease in precipitation during an El Niño event. The same applies to regions like Indonesia and Vietnam. On the other hand, some places experience excessive rainfall, such as in the case of Peru, Brazil, and Africa.


When we talk about El Niño, we need to carefully analyze where we are looking to determine whether we are dealing with excess or deficit of rainfall.

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SH: How does this El Niño phenomenon influence climatic events like hurricanes in one place and droughts in another? How much will that aspect be impacted?


OF: There is indeed a very direct link between these events. Cases of droughts are closely associated with the shift we experience in the precipitation zones that usually need to migrate. As we discussed, this happens over the Pacific, from the eastern region to the western region, carrying all this cloud mass and precipitation toward areas like Australia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. However, this change in the pattern means that they no longer move east to west but from west to east; it causes increases in the indices of water deficit in many of these regions.


Regarding hurricanes, we actually benefited in the Atlantic region, as the number of events and their magnitude tends to be lower during an El Niño event, unlike the Pacific region, where cyclonic events do increase. In our case, El Niño favors us by reducing the occurrences.


SH: So, are we going to see fewer hurricanes than in recent years?


OF: Yes! That's what's expected. Typically, the hurricane season runs from June to November, with around 24 events, including storms, hurricanes, and powerful hurricanes, occurring during that season. But for this year, 2023, we might be expecting around 18.


This doesn't mean we won't have these events; it means they are less prevalent. For this particular case in 2023, we have a 70% probability that the hurricane activity will be either at or below average.

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SH: Well, Oscar, we know that you at Sucafina researched El Niño and how it specifically impacts coffee in Colombia. What have been the conclusions of this research?


OF: Indeed, we reviewed all the literature available about the El Niño phenomenon in Colombia. We then started correlating production with El Niño and La Niña events in the country over the past 50 years, and we found a very direct relationship between these events and coffee production.


In Colombia, El Niño generates significant changes in rainfall patterns, significantly influencing coffee cultivation. We found that the phenomenon resulted in a boost, an increase, in production during those years when there was a rise in the average temperature of the Pacific Ocean and, consequently, higher temperatures in Colombia's coffee-growing regions. Conversely, during La Niña events, we observed decreases of around 7% to 15% in production due to increased rainfall, reduced sunlight, and higher precipitation volumes.


SH: Now, tell us about the quality aspect. What impact does transitioning from a La Niña event to the effects of El Niño have? What's going to happen to the quality?


OF: Transitions like this are pretty uncommon. It's rare for us to move directly from a La Niña phenomenon to an El Niño phenomenon. We don't have extensive records of such a rapid shift. During the past two years of La Niña, we experienced high levels of precipitation and increased cloud cover. This naturally controlled the Broca pest, usually leading to Broca incidence ranging between 2% and 3% during the harvest. However, these incidences decreased significantly during this period, just like the volumes of "pasillas" (defective beans) or lower-grade beans, because we didn't have the influence of dry periods.


Typically in Colombia, we have two dry periods: one between January and March and the other between July and September. Both periods can affect the crops by causing incomplete development and impacting fruit quality. But during this rainy season, since we didn't experience prolonged dry periods, there was a reduction in "pasilla" volume. As a result, we had very good physical qualities, which greatly benefited the producers.


Unfortunately, the negative aspect was a substantial reduction in volume, precisely because the conditions didn't provide sufficient stimulus for flowering in the fields. We observed two years of poor flowering across the country.

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SH: What are the major challenges you've observed for farmers in Colombia concerning this El Niño phenomenon, and how could they address these challenges?


OF: Well, during an El Niño, the precipitation in Colombia can decrease by anywhere from 20% to 60%, depending on the geographical location. Sun exposure hours increase by around 5%, and the maximum temperature rises by 1% or 1°C. This puts pressure on production zones, especially those with open exposure, lower altitudes, and lower rainfall. It truly presents a challenge for the producers.


So, what do the producers have to do under these conditions? Increase their pest and disease control. Dry conditions accelerate the multiplication of the Broca pest, leading to slight increases in infestation rates. 


Additionally, there's the issue of bean filling. Essentially, when we have a dry period further exacerbated by an El Niño, resulting in lower soil moisture levels, it leads to filling problems in particular areas of the country, particularly those at higher risk.


Field conversions are also affected. As a country, we typically convert around 4.8 to 5 kg of cherries into 1 kg of parchment coffee, but under these circumstances, this conversion rate might be impacted, requiring more kilograms of cherries to obtain the same amount of coffee.


The impacts of Broca infestation, inadequate bean filling, and insufficient nutrition can lead to reduced yields and quality, affecting the producers' income. Our concern lies in this, as it can significantly impact the producers' financial situation.


SH: From when, or at what point, do the effects occur due to the implications for the producers? Is it immediate, in 3 months, 6 months, or is it a long-term impact?


OF: The El Niño phenomenon usually lasts between 9 to 12 months. Let's say that's the average occurrence period for El Niño. However, we've had events lasting 7 months and others that persisted for 4 years. So, we can't generalize, but we can say that the average duration is likely between 9 and 12 months.


This phenomenon tends to begin manifesting between April, May, and June when we notice that Pacific temperatures are persistently elevated, and those positive anomalies persist during this period. That's when we begin registering that we're under an El Niño. However, the maturation period occurs between October and February of the following year. So, we haven't entered the mature phase of El Niño yet; we're still in the initial phase. This means we need to be prepared for when we reach that stage.


In Colombia, as we've mentioned, we have two dry and two rainy periods due to climate conditions and precipitation, but in Central America, they have just one period. So, depending on the region where we are located, we can be sure about the impact of the El Niño pattern.




SH:  How can farmers adapt or adjust their practices to minimize risks or damages?


OF: We need to consider the timing of our situation. For us, the producer needs to work on different fronts:


  1. Knowledge - The producer needs to be sure about the conditions of their crop. What does this mean? They must know the climatic patterns in their area, including precipitation and temperature. This will determine if they are in a high-risk zone or not. They need to know the characteristics of their terrain. They should know whether the soil retains sufficient moisture or not. The cultivation system is also essential. Whether it's fully exposed, in semi-shade, or under shade, these three elements are part of the prior knowledge required to begin analyzing the impacts and how to prepare for an El Niño event.


    It's not the same for a producer in Cauca or Nariño compared to a producer with a farm in Chinchiná in the central part of the country or one in Santander. In Colombia, conditions vary significantly from one region to another, making adaptation necessary for each region.

  2. Short-term actions - El Niño is already upon us; we need to think about short-term or reactive measures. For instance, implementing temporary and rapidly growing shade. Specifically, in areas with open exposure and very low rainfall, we need to support the crops with temporary shade, such as plantain or banana, and other species that can help us intervene quickly in the cultivation.


    We need to ensure that the terrain retains moisture. To achieve this, we need to maintain the ground cover. Excessive exposure to the sun can dehydrate the soil, preventing it from retaining sufficient moisture to withstand this period.

  3. Timely nutrition - This is a crucial detail. If we know an El Niño is coming, we must start working on nutrition. In addition to adequate soil moisture, the plant requires proper nutrition to ensure its development, size, and weight. At this time, producers cannot neglect nutrition. If we have a situation where there's moisture and some rainfall in the soil, we need to take advantage of that by advancing nutrition. We shouldn't wait until the last minute.

  4. Constant monitoring of Broca and other diseases - Increasing control over the Broca pest in the fields is critical. Frequent monitoring is essential! In Colombia, during the last two years, producers had forgotten about controlling the Broca because they didn't need to. They found an environmental factor that kept it in check. This is understandable since Broca's levels were low. However, now that we've been making field visits, we've noticed an increase in Broca infestations precisely because producers haven't consistently monitored it. So, in the short term, we need to increase the frequency of field checks.

SH: Of course, maybe they were too focused on La Roya (Coffee Leaf Rust), right? They saw humidity and heavy rain and left the other pests aside?


OF: Exactly; under heavy rainfall and humidity conditions, the concern over controlling La Roya takes over. But now we're on a different page. Now the Broca pest multiplies much faster and requires accurate control. So, if the producer wants to ensure good quality and better income from their coffee, they need to exercise greater control.


Another essential point in these short-term measures is that in areas with low average annual precipitation, for instance, in Colombia, where we have regions with 1500 mm per year or even less, producers need to be aware that they must work on water reserves using tanks for household consumption as well as for coffee processing because difficulties will arise.


There are areas like Cundinamarca and Boyacá where volumes can be significantly reduced, and producers need to work on a contingency plan in the face of an El Niño event. We experienced this in 2015, and 2016, a very strong event, and many water sources disappeared due to the lack of rainfall during that period.


  1. Another point in this management plan is thinking long-term plans in advance. Let's prepare for the next event. As I mentioned, this event repeats every 3 to 7 years. So, it's not a coincidence.


SH: In other words, it's not an anomaly. It was coming?


OF: Exactly! It's not an anomaly. The anomaly is that we quickly transitioned from La Niña to El Niño, but in reality, El Niño is an event that occurs frequently worldwide. We need to consider adapting our production systems to this repetitive condition. These events repeat every 3 to 7 years. So, in these long-term actions, we should consider establishing shade according to the crop's needs. We can't provide a generalized recipe like "establish shade." In some areas, rainfall is relatively high, sunlight is lower, temperature intensity doesn't affect them as much, and we might think shade isn't as necessary. However, we should start adapting areas where protection is needed.


We've also heard about regenerative agriculture practices. We need to start working on that for the sustainability of the business, cultivation, and production and restoring intervened production areas. These areas have been depleted over many years, with elements being removed from the soil, with or without sufficient shade, to ensure biodiversity and balanced production within the ecosystem. 


This is where our IMPACT program comes in. We want to work on promoting regenerative agriculture. We've already made significant efforts in several origins where we have a presence. Producers will be hearing more about this, primarily due to the climatic events increasingly impacting production areas negatively.


SH: Very enlightening! There's a lot to discuss. Information is a crucial component for all our coffee-producer friends. Adaptability, understanding their environment, comprehending their local conditions, and how to adjust strategies based on what they have. It's not a one-size-fits-all solution; it's not a fixed plan. Can you tell us your recommendations in the current context?

OF: There's a lot to discuss. Our time feels too short to cover all the impacts and regions. To give you a simple data point, the production areas entering a deficit during these events can amount to around 34% of the producing areas of the expected harvest for 2023-2024. Meanwhile, the areas experiencing excessive rainfall are about 31%. So, 65% of the production areas and the harvest are impacted, either by excessive or deficient precipitation.

So, you see the relevance and why there's concern within the sector regarding climatic events like El Niño or La Niña.

SH: Absolutely! We hope this information can help producers prepare for a future event without being caught off guard by the next El Niño or La Niña episode. As you mentioned, rather than being reactive, being proactive and vigilant is key! Planning can make all the difference.

OF: That's right! We're delighted to participate, provide information, and hopefully, next time, we can explore other regions. Our work in Colombia gave us a better understanding of the phenomenon, and we're already working on that adaptation process. What we need to do now in the short term, but above all, in the long term, with the programs we manage in the country, is to promote long-term regenerative coffee cultivation.

SH: Fantastic; thank you so much, Oscar! It was truly fascinating. We'll keep everyone in the loop on any updates!


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Topics: Agriculture, Climate Change, Coffee, Coffee Farming, coffee farming best practices, Specialty Coffee, Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers, Coffee Processing