Coca Plant Likely to Survive Climate Change, Researchers Say

By Victoria Kim 11/11/14

While the rest of the planet will be melting under sweltering heat, the hardy coca plant will not only survive, it will thrive.

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Will still thrive while we all die. Shutterstock

As the impact of climate change is felt on food cultivation worldwide, little has been studied on climate change’s effect on illicit drugs like cocaine, a derivative from the coca plant. But researchers who have studied cocaine say that coca is a tough plant, and will likely to adapt to climate change as the areas of coca production become hotter and drier in the coming century.

“Coca is kind of unique, because it’s got a very heavy wax cuticle, a layer on the leaves. So that tends to protect it from water loss,” said Charles Helling, a former soil chemist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who has worked for the State Department’s anti-drug office in Colombia for three years. “It’s a pretty hardy shrub. It’s actually a lot hardier than a typical crop plant.”

Cocaine is an alkaloid extracted from the leaves of the coca shrub. Its cultural and medicinal uses are rooted in indigenous South American populations. It is often offered to visitors struggling with high altitude, in Bolivia particularly, where it is chewed or brewed into a tea. Coca is used as an everyday stimulant drug much like coffee, tea, chewing tobacco, and khat are used in other areas of the world.

Coca is used medicinally as a standard remedy for anything from fatigue, indigestion, toothache, and as a local anesthetic, according to Associate Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Lester Grinspoon, who studied the medical uses of illicit drugs.

Coca growing in Peru, which is already seeing a longer dry season, has already adapted to as little as 20 inches of rainfall a year. Coca typically grows in areas that receive between three and four times that amount.

“It’s a wet, tropical forest plant, and making it a little bit drier is not going to dramatically change it,” said Kenneth Young, a University of Texas geographer who has studied Peru for more than 20 years. Soon, demand for a more “robust” variety of coca will rise to adapt to a drier climate, he added.

Not only is the coca plant likely to survive a changing climate, it might open up more space to grow at higher elevations, according to Helling. He predicts growers will adapt to less rainfall by relying more on irrigation. “I’ve seen some amazing, shall we say, agronomic setups down in Colombia particularly,” Helling said.

The illicit drug business has demonstrated that it will go to any lengths to adapt and innovate to meet demand. In 2009, the Mexican navy seized more than a ton of cocaine found inside frozen shark carcasses after searching a cargo ship at a Yucatan container port. In 2012, several tons of cocaine were uncovered inside a crudely constructed diesel-powered submarine.

Average temperatures could rise by as much as four degrees Celsius, or 7.2-degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in March. But regardless of the changing climate and the disadvantage it poses to crop cultivation worldwide, coca is a likely survivor.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr