Climate crisis is fueling the family’s Sicilian coffee dream

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This story was originally published by The guard and appears here as part of the Climate desk Cooperation.

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

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

Experts say the climate emergency is making Sicily’s Mediterranean agriculture irrevocably tropical, where in August a monitoring station in the southeastern city of Syracuse measured 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 a dream come true.

“In the 1990s, after traveling around the world, my father decided to grow some coffee plants in our small garden on the outskirts of Palermo at 350 meters above sea level. Coffee plantations normally grow around 1,500 meters above sea level, ”said Morettino.

“It was a simple experiment at first, but after hundreds of trials, we found that the number of coffee beans increased until last spring, when a bountiful harvest allowed us to process, dry and roast them.

“Do you know what’s even more incredible?” He added. “The plants grew outdoors without the help of greenhouses or pesticides. All organic. For us it could be a new beginning. “

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

In the home of espresso and cappuccino, growing Made in Italy coffee has always been an obsession. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, a group of agronomists from the Botanical Garden of Palermo, a research institute of the University of Palermo, tried to grow coffee. The dream was shattered in the winter of 1912 when the plants died due to the particularly low temperatures that year.

“It is clear that the climate emergency and the resulting rise in temperature played a crucial role in the flowering of the coffee plants in Sicily,” says Adriano Cafiso, who has spent the last 15 years touring plantations in South America and Africa and is now working together with Morettino.

“The problem with 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 can gradually adapt to the Sicilian climate until they can even thrive outdoors, as has already happened on the Palermo plantation. “

When the temperature rises, a family hopes to build the world’s northernmost coffee plantation. #Climate crisis #climate emergency

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

“Our dream is to introduce coffee production within kilometers of continental Europe for the first time,” he said. “In recent years, due to climate change, Sicily has developed in the direction of other cultivated plants that until a decade ago seemed unthinkable and also force us entrepreneurs to develop further.”

For centuries, Sicily was one of the main producers of oranges and lemons, imported by its Arab conquerors in the early 9th century. In recent years, however, the production of citrus fruits has decreased dramatically: The area used for oranges has decreased by 31 percent in the last 15 years, that for lemons by almost half, as the increasingly hot and dry summers can no longer absorb the plants enough water.

The signs of the turnaround could already be felt before the mercury reached 48.8 ° C in August: In summer 2020 it did not rain for 90 consecutive days. Data collected by the Balkan and Caucasus Observatory put the average temperature rise on the island over the past 50 years at almost 2 ° C and rose to 3.4 ° C in Messina on the northeast coast.

Scientists say the climate emergency could push traditional agricultural crops out of the Mediterranean, so growers must look for tropical alternatives. In the last three years the production of avocados, mangos and papayas in Sicily has doubled, while the flowering of Welwitschia, which is native to the South African Namib desert, was registered for the first time in the Botanical Garden of Palermo.

“There is a very high and imminent risk of desertification on the island, with many historic vines destined to disappear,” said Christian Mulder, professor of ecology and climate emergencies at the University of Catania. “In the long-term worst-case scenario, the entire south-western part of Sicily will not be climatically different from Tunisia. This forces farmers to adapt to new crops. It is a process that is already underway. We have to fight to avoid the worst. “


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