Climate, labor issues roil coffee sector: report

Coffee berries on a branch, pictured above, in Chiapas, Mexico. (© Cristina Mittermeier)

Climate change, poor labor conditions and the uneven distribution of value within the coffee sector are brewing a triple shot of trouble for coffee, a new report finds.

These and other issues are jeopardizing the future of coffee production, according to the Coffee Barometer, a report published every four years highlighting emerging sustainability trends in the coffee sector. The report is being officially presented today at World of Coffee in Amsterdam, a large annual coffee industry meeting.

Researched and written by international organizations Hivos, Solidaridad, Oxfam, COSA, SAFE Platform and Conservation International, the 2018 Coffee Barometer paints a disconcerting picture for one of the world’s most widely traded agricultural commodities.

For one, as the structure of the coffee industry consolidates via numerous mergers and acquisitions of well-known brands into larger families of companies, it’s not clear whether these will accelerate sustainability or continue the status quo, the report finds.

Second, although the coffee sector is “more advanced than any other commodity” with respect to sustainability efforts, these investments are small in comparison to investments made in the acquisitions and mergers, the report states. These sustainability investments do not sufficiently support a sustained supply of coffee in light of aging trees, climate change, low prices and a new generation less interested in becoming coffee farmers (putting the industry at risk), according to the report.

“Although coffee has been at the forefront of sustainability and we continue to make progress, there is much more to be done,” said Bambi Semroc, vice president of sustainable markets and strategy for Conservation International. “We must now work together with potentially unlikely partners to maintain coffee’s leadership position, to tackle the root causes of these perpetual issues and to do so at scale.”

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The Barometer does not signal that all hope is lost, said Niels Haak, senior manager of sustainable coffee at Conservation International; rather, it reinforces the need for collaboration across the sector to address the challenges it lays out. “We see a clear opportunity for companies across the industry to be more transparent about their efforts and to collectively find solutions that will drive change across the sector.” The report calls out the work of the Sustainable Coffee Challenge and other initiatives that are bringing together players from across the coffee industry to tackle challenging issues such as labor and deforestation, which the report singles out as two of the most critical issues facing the sector.

“Coffee production has been growing by over 20 percent … since 2010, but we do not know how much forested land has been converted into farmland used for coffee production,” the report states.

“Furthermore,” it continues, “it is assumed that 20 [million]-25 million smallholder farmers produce 70 percent of the coffee globally, an estimate that stands unchallenged in the last 15 years. The coffee harvest, therefore, depends on millions of farmworkers; an important but invisible group of stakeholders. They remain largely voiceless in the discussions about a sustainable coffee sector.”

The report is a clear sign that more companies must engage in combined efforts to tackle these critical, deeply-rooted issues that no single company can solve on their own, Semroc said. The Sustainable Coffee Challenge is working to do just that by aligning like-minded actors around the critical issues facing the coffee industry.

“We urgently need to act to sustain coffee production, improve livelihoods and conserve nature and the coffee sector has a tremendous opportunity to lead,” Semroc said. “Sustainable sourcing commitments are important, yet this report compels us to move beyond individual actions toward collaboration. We have the opportunity to show the world a clear path forward to becoming the first sustainable agricultural product. Coffee can lead the way, and other agricultural products can learn from our experience.”

Bruno Vander Velde is the editorial director for Conservation International. Sophie Bertazzo is a senior editor at Conservation International.

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