Coffee sector brewing plans to save your morning cup

A coffee farmer in Chiapas, Mexico.

A coffee farmer in Chiapas, Mexico inspects coffee berries. (© Cristina Mittermeier)

In 10 years, the question may not be where you get your morning cup of coffee — but if.

Demand for coffee is soaring as the effects of climate change in the tropical forests and farms that produce coffee berries likely become worse. Increased climate variability could slash the world’s suitable coffee-growing area in half, disrupting not only our morning routines, but the income of millions of farmers who grow coffee.

To ensure that the coffee sector can produce a sustainable supply of joe in the future, Conservation International’s (CI) Sustainable Coffee Challenge unveiled a new plan of attack at the Global Specialty Coffee Expo in Seattle this month.

The Challenge aims to make coffee the world’s first sustainable agricultural product, working with more than 60 partners in business, government and nonprofit and research organizations to find effective solutions that address the greatest challenges facing coffee.

The new plan revolves around four actions that participants in the Challenge can engage in as part of the collective effort.

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Uniting for collective action

“Essentially, the Challenge says to members: ‘Join us, roll up your sleeves as a group and let’s do something bigger than what we could individually achieve,’” said Bambi Semroc, a senior strategic adviser and coffee sustainability expert at CI.

For the past 20 years, the coffee sector’s progress on sustainability has been slow and uneven. To build momentum and drive action, the newest phase of CI’s Sustainable Coffee Challenge brings together major private and public sector players — including Starbucks, USAID, Arizona State University and FairTrade USA — to agree on global targets for action.

Members of this collective action network can sign up for any number of four categories of action in which to participate: restoring coffee farms, improving labor practices, sharing sustainable sourcing methods and mapping changes in coffee-producing areas. At the Expo, participating members met to discuss these guidelines, kicking off a 100-day planning process to create specific benchmarks and calls to action.

“The complexity of sustainable coffee can be overwhelming, so we’re trying to help people orient themselves in what can feel like chaos by outlining common goals and ways to measure our collective progress,” Semroc said.

Adapting to climate change

One way to encourage stable production of coffee is to replace diseased and aging trees with healthy, productive and resilient varieties. Since 2015, Starbucks has provided more than 18 million trees to farmers in Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala as part of CI’s One Tree for Every Bag partnership. More than planting trees, CI is also working to encourage farm renovation and rehabilitation.

As global average temperatures rise, coffee production could be forced to move to higher altitudes that harbor intact tropical forests. Mapping these areas illuminates the changing borders between farms and forests, helping companies plan improved methods to produce coffee without cutting down forests.

Climate change also affects the 120 million people who rely on coffee for their livelihoods, including seasonal laborers who handpick coffee at harvest time. Changes in coffee productivity —  how much and where it’s produced — disrupts labor migration patterns. Companies such as Culture Coffee, Keurig, Utz and Smuckers have pledged to promote good labor practices, improving working conditions and job security while preventing child and slave labor.

Some companies that sustainably source their coffee have agreed to share what they’ve learned with other retailers and roasters starting on the path to sustainability.

“Until now, the coffee sector has been struggling to understand how all these different interventions and investments work together as a collective whole,” said Semroc. “People are hungry for this pivot towards collective action, and so we’ve identified four priority areas and are getting people to make commitments, report back on progress and keep moving forward.”

Leah Bevin Duran is a development writer at Conservation International.

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