In a country where coffee is king, sustainability is brewing

Rows of shade-grown coffee.

Rows of shade-grown coffee. (© S&D Coffee and Tea/Lucia Hernandez)

Editor’s note: Since the mid-1800s, coffee has been central to Nicaragua’s culture and economy. As of 2015, the crop represented 16 percent of the country’s total exports and generated employment for more than 330,000 people — about six percent of the Central American country’s population. As global demand for the beverage grows and climate change threatens to cut suitable growing area in half, Conservation International (CI) is working with partners in the coffee industry to find innovative ways to make coffee the world’s first sustainable agricultural product.

CI’s sustainable coffee markets director, Raina Lang, traveled to Nicaragua with staff from McDonald’s, a CI partner to learn more about the local challenges facing farmers and the efforts of McDonald’s coffee roasters — the experts that source the company’s coffee from farmers — to address them.

Lush greenery in northern Nicaragua’s coffee country.

Lush greenery in northern Nicaragua’s coffee country. (© S&D Coffee and Tea/Lucia Hernandez)

Surrounded by volcanoes and crater lakes, Nicaragua’s tropical conditions are optimal for coffee production  and the country is steeped in rich coffee traditions. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the country alongside the McDonald’s sourcing and sustainability team and their North American coffee roasters. Each McDonald’s coffee roaster has developed a unique way of engaging directly with the coffee farmers that supply McDonald’s beans. The roasters came from across the United States and Canada to learn about the sustainable coffee programs of two of McDonald’s roasters and to share what they’ve learned in their efforts to build the McCafé Sustainability Improvement Platform (McCafé SIP).

Visiting a coffee farm.

CI experts, McDonald’s staff and roasters visiting Maura Andrea Herrera’s farm in Jinotega, Nicaragua. (© S&D Coffee and Tea/Otto Mejia)

McDonald’s is one of CI’s partners in the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, a coalition aiming to make coffee the first fully sustainable agricultural product. Built on McDonald’s 2014 commitment to sustainable sourcing, McDonald’s launched McCafé SIP last October. McCafé SIP is a coffee sustainability framework that not only focuses on supporting farmers’ best practices, but also enables McDonald’s to invest in programs that encourage continuous improvements in production. The platform was designed to enable McDonald’s roasters to leverage their expertise while seeking a common goal: to make coffee production sustainable. McDonald’s is focusing on transparency, producer collaboration, measured performance and assurance (verifying practices by a third party), enabling McCafé SIP to be a platform for which roasters can exchange ideas in a non-competitive space.

A healthy, growing coffee tree.

A healthy, growing coffee tree. (© S&D Coffee and Tea/Lucia Hernandez)

During the trip, we visited several operations including three women-owned farms, a coffee plant nursery, a collection center and a laboratory that produces new varieties of coffee that are more productive and more adaptive to climate change, among other things. With each visit, we got to speak directly with the farmers and the communities they are a part of, understanding the massive role coffee plays in their lives and livelihoods and the positive impact companies such as McDonald’s and their roasters can have. During the trip, we visited with growers that work directly with two roasters, S&D Coffee and Tea and Farmer Brothers Sustainable Coffee Challenge members that have made specific commitments to sustainability.

COFFEE NEEDS NATURE

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Jennifer Herrera shows off her new coffee-farm bookkeeping skills.

Jennifer Herrera shows off her new coffee-farm bookkeeping skills. (© Townsend Bailey)

For the high school and college-aged children of farmers interested in accounting, one program is teaching them the basics of coffee farm bookkeeping. We witnessed this practice firsthand when we visited the farm of Graciela Herrera, a coffee grower with Farmer Brothers, in La Virgen, Jinotega. Herrera’s daughter Jennifer showed us her meticulous accounting records even going so far as to explain her calculations. A community development program run by S&D Coffee and Tea promotes the creation of “future farm maps,” plans that sketch out five-year goals for the farms in a collaborative manner. These maps help farmers make strategic decisions regarding the growing practices and investments they need to achieve their goals.

A technician teaches the group about pruning techniques.

A technician teaches the group about pruning techniques. (© S&D Coffee and Tea/Otto Mejia)

Conservation International has worked in the coffee sector for nearly 20 years. To meet the vision of the Sustainable Coffee Challenge and achieve lasting impacts in the farming communities that support the coffee industry, like those we visited in Nicaragua we know we must collaborate and identify opportunities for improvement and innovation. McDonald’s is one of the many companies leading the charge for sustainable coffee. Their work includes support for farmers in their supply chain, as well as a time-bound sustainability commitment to ensure 100 percent of the coffee they serve comes from sources supporting sustainable production by 2020.

Pulping process.

Coffee skin and pulp that has been separated during pulping, a process undertaken by coffee farmers in Nicaragua. (© S&D Coffee and Tea/Lucia Hernandez)

Not only did this journey with McDonald’s conjure up new ideas for collaboration, it allowed us to reflect on how we should strive for continuous improvements across the entire coffee value chain not just in farming. McDonald’s is taking collaboration to the next level: They’ve launched an Advisory Committee comprised of NGOs to help provide guidance to improve the McCafe SIP. Additionally, to help strengthen demand for sustainable coffee, McDonald’s is teaming up with other organizations to launch a collective action network to generate more sustainable sourcing commitments across the coffee industry. You can see the Sustainable Coffee Challenge commitments of McDonald’s and other companies here.

Raina Lang is CI’s sustainable coffee markets director. 

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