Eyeing coffee’s climate impact, new initiative seeks sustainability for entire crop

(© UN Photo/Martine Perret)

Coffee’s environmental impact is as large as its impact on people, with 25 million small-scale farmers producing 90% of the global coffee supply. (© UN Photo/Martine Perret)

The world’s most valued tropical crop could be its first sustainable crop under a new initiative being launched at the Paris climate talks.

The Sustainable Coffee Challenge, launched by Conservation International (CI), aims to make coffee the first sustainable global agricultural product, transforming coffee production and moving specialty and mainstream producers toward sustainability. The Challenge will convene industry, conservation and agricultural development partners to develop a common framework for sustainability in the coffee sector. In the coming months, CI will engage partners and finalize plans, to be unveiled at the 4th World Coffee Conference in March in Ethiopia — the birthplace of coffee.

Currently, nearly half of the world’s coffee is being produced according to a sustainability standard, a figure that does not yet account for a number of recent significant investments made by the sector to support farmers in their transition to more sustainable practices.  Yet only 12% was sold as sustainable coffee in the market.


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All coffee started from a tree in a tropical country — and those trees are under threat. Check out our infographic and find out why you should think globally about your morning cup.

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“We need a common definition of sustainability for the coffee sector,” said Peter Seligmann, CI’s chairman and CEO. “This will require commitments by roasters to support increased demand for sustainability. It will also require improved measurement of how far the sector has come in the sustainability journey — and just how far we have to go.”

In the world of coffee, sustainability isn’t merely a buzzword aimed at burnishing a “green” image. On the contrary, it just might save coffee as we know it.

One of the most popular agricultural commodities in the world — some 600 billion cups of the stuff are drunk every year around the world — coffee also is one of its most precarious. At the same time exacerbating climate change — coffee farms routinely expand at the expense of tropical forest, emitting carbon emissions in the process — it stands to be adversely affected by climate change.

As CI coffee expert Bambi Semroc wrote in September:

As temperatures rise and rainfall patterns change due to climate variability, coffee farms will have to move to new areas or implement other adaptation measures just to maintain the same level of production — which is already happening in some parts of the world. At this rate, experts predict that the quality of coffee will drop, prices will rise, coffee-farming communities will suffer and deforestation will increase as more upland tropical forests are cleared to make way for new plantations.

The industry has a part to play in reversing climate change: Halting deforestation globally, including through fostering sustainable farming practices in coffee production, can provide more than 30% of the carbon sequestration and storage needed to limit global temperature rise to safe levels.

In Peru’s Alto Mayo Protected Forest, CI has been working with local farmers to create more sustainable agricultural practices to help conserve and restore the forest. (© Thomas Mueller)

Coffee’s environmental impact — globally, it is grown across 111,000 square kilometers (43,000 square miles) of land, an area the size of Cuba — is as large as its impact on people, with 25 million small-scale farmers producing 90% of the global coffee supply. Already subject to volatility of global coffee markets, these farmers face a second blow from climate change. Sustainable sourcing can help to enhance productivity and improve producer livelihoods while helping to slow the crop’s effects on climate change by addressing deforestation associated with agricultural expansion.

CI has been a leader in the coffee sector since the 1990s, when it teamed with Starbucks to establish environmental and social best practices for farms that sell their beans to the company. Today 99% of the coffee beans sourced by Starbucks meet ethical and sustainable sourcing guidelines.

Bruno Vander Velde is CI’s editorial director. 

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