The climate crisis warms the dream of the family’s Sicilian coffee

This story was originally published by The Guardian and appears here as part of the Climate Table collaboration.

For more than 30 years, the Morettino family had tried to produce their own coffee on a small piece of land in Sicily. And for 30 years they had failed.

But last spring, 66 seedlings produced about 30 kilograms of coffee, in a development that could make the Italian island the northernmost coffee plantation in the world.

Experts say the climate emergency is irremediably tropicalizing Sicily’s Mediterranean agriculture, where in August, a monitoring station in the southeastern city of Syracuse took a temperature of 48.8 C, the highest ever recorded in Europe. But for Andrea Morettino, whose family has been in the coffee business for a century, it is the realization of a dream.

“In the 1990s, after many travels around the world, my father decided to try to plant some coffee plants in our little garden on the outskirts of Palermo, in a field 350 meters above sea level. In general, coffee plantations grow around 1,500 meters above sea level, ”Morettino said.

“At first it was a simple experiment but after hundreds of attempts, we began to notice that the coffee beans were growing in number, until last spring when an abundant harvest allowed us to process, dry and roast them.

“You know what is even more incredible?” added. “The plants grew outdoors, without the help of greenhouses or pesticides. Totally organic. For us, it could be a new beginning. “

Young man picking red coffee cherries on a green farm. Photo by Michael Burrows / Pexels

In the homeland of espresso and cappuccino, the cultivation of Made in Italy coffee has always been an obsession. Already in the early 1900s, a group of agronomists from the Palermo Botanical Garden, a research institute at the University of Palermo, tried to grow coffee. The dream was shattered in the winter of 1912 when, due to the particularly low temperatures of that year, the plants died.

“It is clear that the climatic emergency and the consequent increase in temperatures have played a decisive role in the flowering of coffee plants in Sicily,” said Adriano Cafiso, who has spent the last 15 years touring plantations in South America and Africa and now collaborates with Morettino.

“The problem of growing coffee in Sicily is not the heat, but the cold. For this reason, we are already working on a number of greenhouse plantations. The idea is that the so-called daughters or granddaughters of these plants gradually adapt to the Sicilian climate to the point of being able to flower even outdoors, as has already happened in the Palermo plantation ”.

As temperatures rise, a family hopes to establish the world’s northernmost coffee plantation. #ClimateCrisis #ClimateEmergency

The project will take years to reach large-scale production, but Morettino is determined to create new coffee plantations on the island.

“Our dream is … to bring coffee production for the first time to kilometers away from the mainland. Europe, “he said.” In recent years, due to climate change, Sicily has been evolving towards other crops that until a decade ago seemed unthinkable, and that also force us entrepreneurs to evolve. “

Sicily was for centuries one of the main producers of oranges and lemons, first imported by its Arab conquerors in the early 9th century. However, in recent years, citrus production has declined dramatically: land in use for oranges has decreased by 31% in the last 15 years, and that for lemons has almost halved as increasingly hot and dry summers mean plants cannot absorb. sufficient water.

The signs of change had already been felt before the mercury reached 48.8 C in August: in the summer of 2020, it did not rain for 90 consecutive days. Data collected by the Observatory of the Balkans and the Caucasus put the average temperature rise on the island over the past 50 years at almost 2 C, rising to 3.4 C at Messina on the northeast coast.

Scientists say the climate emergency could sweep away traditional agricultural crops from the Mediterranean, leaving growers to seek tropical alternatives. In the last three years, the production of avocados, mangoes and papaya has doubled in Sicily, while in the botanical garden of Palermo, researchers have registered for the first time the flowering of welwitschia, a native of the Namib desert, in the South Africa.

“There is a very high and imminent risk of desertification on the island, with many historical strains destined to disappear,” said Christian Mulder, professor of ecology and climate emergency at the University of Catania. “In the worst long-term case, the entire southwestern part of Sicily will be climatically indistinguishable from Tunisia. This is forcing farmers to adapt to new crops. It is a process that is already underway. We must fight to avoid the worst ”.

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