Coffee and sustainability: combining insight from research and practice

Fair Trade Certified Coffee, Gumutindo Coffee Cooperative © Fairtrade USA

For the past 20+ years the coffee sector has been leading the global experiment to see if a commodity can meet growing demand, drive economic development in producing countries and do all of this while conserving the forest and freshwater ecosystems where it grows. Unfortunately, coffee sustainability is not getting any easier even though we have over 20 years of experience. We face unprecedented challenges in the sector: most notably, poverty, lack of economic development, deforestation and climate change. The good news is that this experiment has been intensely researched offering us insights into what’s worked, what’s not and why. Coffee is the most researched commodity in the sustainability space and this October, Evidensia’s Coffee Future’s campaign sought to review and share key insights from this evidence base.

Here’s what we know about the significance of coffee:

– There are 12.5 million farms growing coffee on 10 million hectares worldwide. The majority of these are small-scale farms.

– The coffee sector provides an estimated 125 million jobs.

– 55% of coffee production complied with voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) in 2017. Only 20% of this was purchased through these programs.

– Continued growth in coffee consumption at current rates would require a doubling of coffee production by 2050. If this takes place through expansion of the coffee area, we could lose another 10M hectares of forest and release 1.65 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere.

– Climate change models predict that 50% of suitable area for coffee will be less suitable by mid-century.

– 60% of suitable areas for coffee growing is currently forested, but only 20% is formally protected.

We also know that the coffee sector is investing $350M per year in sustainability programs and yet, we continue to see high levels of poverty and lack of economic development in many coffee producing communities.  Coffee has been in a price crisis for the past two years. When coupled with COVID, we see a continued decline in coffee prices, labour shortages, decreased demand from consumers, oversupply from producers all resulting in continued low prices for coffee paid to farmers. We know this is not sustainable.

So the key question is, with this knowledge and a growing commitment to sustainability, how can we learn from the ‘experiment so far’ to inform our actions going forward. Evidensia’s insights tell us that results from the experiment so far are a mixed bag.

– Results at farm level indicate increasing adoption of good agricultural practices in many regions but this is not always translating into higher incomes and prosperity for farming households

– Despite heavy investments, the economics of sustainability are still far from having a long-term business case for many small-scale farmers

– There is a big difference in adoption levels across origins – why is this and how can we take all coffee origins along on a sustainability journey?

– Market-sustainability practices have mixed results on yields and costs of production. What can help make this performance more consistent?

– There is simply not enough evidence to understand the difference that coffee sustainability programmes are having on key environmental outcomes

– There is also close to no reliable evidence to understand the difference that sustainability efforts are making on labour practices and human rights protection

Aimed at coordinating efforts in transforming the coffee sector into the first sustainable agricultural product, the Sustainable Coffee Challenge sits right at the heart of these questions. It has encouraged partners – companies, government agencies, NGOs and many others – to make commitments to sustainable coffee and report publicly on their progress. And it has worked collectively to provide guidance and spur action to address some of the most critical issues facing coffee today – sustainable sourcing, renovation and rehabilitation of coffee farms, labour practices and supply and forest conservation. We have seen tremendous growth in these efforts – from 18 partners to nearly 160 today stating over 100 different commitments.

Today we are asking ourselves a few hard questions:

1) How can coffee growing drive economic prosperity for smallholder communities?

2) How can we ensure market signals sufficiently drive and reward increases in production and quality alongside of social and environmental practices? and

3) How can we produce the coffee necessary to meet growing demand and conserve forest and freshwater systems in a carbon positive model?

The Coffee Futures campaign from Evidensia also invited thoughts from leading researchers on solutions towards what works. Across contexts, it is clear that a key focus needs to be on creating long-term incentives and the business case for coffee farming households to continuously invest in sustainability. This means thinking long and hard about coffee prices, coffee productivity and returns at farm-level. But it also means improving knowledge about and uptake of climate-smart solutions that can address both environmental goals and core issues such as food insecurity.

Within the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, actors across the coffee supply chain are already making public commitments to the Challenge’s intervention pathways. The 2020 Commitments Hub Report reveals that more than half of commitments focus predominantly on resilient coffee supply. Roasters, in particular, are stating public commitments in the Hub, followed closely by retailers, and generally, commitments target Central America. Yet more than a quarter of commitments are expected to reach maturity in 2020. While we applaud good efforts, it is crucial to shift the sector’s focus to beyond these 2020 commitments and back to our united future vision as we tirelessly tackle the challenges facing the global coffee community. And so, in the first half of this year, partners in the Challenge agreed upon one collective commitment for a sustainable sector.

Partners in the Challenge have now jointly defined a set of 2050 goals and interim 2025 targets to unlock unprecedented commitments and actions – individual and collective – towards our joint vision. These goals and targets state clear, quantifiable objectives for people, planet, coffee, and markets. We know that if we can at least double coffee production levels by 2050 on the existing 10 million hectares of coffee lands over the next 25 years and improve market and labour systems we can improve the livelihoods and economic viability of farmers and workers, conserve 10 million hectares of forest, and avoid at least 1.5 GT of carbon emissions. This is our collective commitment. Coffee is part of the solution to climate change. With our new collective commitment that includes a carbon objective, coffee has officially entered the global climate fight.

We cannot possibly meet these goals and targets alone. Making coffee sustainable will take the good will of like-minded initiatives industry associations and the coffee community at large to align with and adopt these goals as a compass for the global sector. It will also require a renewed research focus that moves from focusing on challenges to capturing solutions – at a global and local level – to support sector-wide action. Practical action needs to be supported by field evidence of what works and what doesn’t in a way that loops back to inform a new set of actions. This needs better collaboration between research and practice. All of this, along with the   individual and collective commitments in coffee communities and landscapes, will help us get us there in a way that supports the wellbeing of coffee communities and their landscapes while ensuring the future of the 600 billion+ cups of coffee that we drink every year.

Bambi Semroc
Sustainable Coffee Challenge, Conservation International
Vidya Rangan
Senior Manager, ISEAL

You may also be interested in: