Most of us start our day with coffee. But few are aware of how it gets to our breakfast table and who gets most of the money we pay for it. Nor can we be confident about the future supply of our beloved caffeinated beverages, which fuels so many of us from countless cultures.
Coffee is grown on bushes or small trees, which can produce beans for many years. Cultivation takes place around the globe between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, also known as the "bean belt". The two main types of coffee are Arabica and Robusta. Higher quality Arabica beans account for around 65% of total coffee production, while Robusta beans make up the rest.
Efforts to sustainably cultivate coffee began in earnest in the 1980s. As of 2012, 40% of global coffee production was compliant with one of the 7 mayor standards (in order of greatest volume): 4C, UTZ, CAFÉ practice (Starbucks), Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, Triple AAA (Nespresso) and Organic. Between 2008 and 2012 sustainably produced coffee had an annual growth of 26%.
Most coffee beans are shipped unroasted from Latin America, Africa and Asia to the United States and Europe in large containers. From the port of entry, the beans are trucked to storage sites, usually at a processing plant. Coffee processing includes storing, cleaning and weighing, roasting, cooling, grinding and blending.
After the beans are roasted and packaged, the finished product is trucked to regional distribution centres. From here it goes to wholesalers and supermarkets, where customers purchase roasted beans or ground coffee. Coffee is one of the most consumed beverages in developed countries and consumption is growing rapidly in emerging economies around the globe.
Making coffee farming viable
For most of the world’s coffee producers, farming is no longer an attractive or sustainable business. There’s an urgent need to produce more and better quality coffee with fewer negative impacts on people and the environment.
Many small-scale coffee farmers make very little money due to ageing farmers and plantations, small plots, and inefficient cultivation methods. What’s more, coffee growers’ families often suffer from nutrition-related illnesses. This reduces productivity, causing impoverishment.
High rates of malnutrition lead to worse school performance and higher health costs for these families. Even certification is not a guarantee that the income farmers currently generate from coffee production is enough to support their families.
The future of coffee for small-scale farmers depends on making coffee farming attractive for coming generations. If urgent action is not taken poverty will become generational for many small-holder families.
The proportion of land used for shade-grown coffee has decreased worldwide by 20% since 1996. Shade-grown coffee provides a diverse habitat, allows the soil to replenish nutrients, provides natural pest control and a habitat for native species.
Sun-grown coffee, in which forests are cleared to make room for coffee cultivation, has damaging environmental effects. Sun-grown coffee produces higher yields and is more cost efficient. But unlike shade-grown coffee, sun-grown coffee reduces biodiversity due to the clearing of land to produce one sole product. This reduction in biodiversity decreases the land’s ability to yield good harvests.
To replace the natural nutrients in the soil, pesticides and fertilizers are used. Since there is no cover for the plants, they are exposed to the tropical rains which cause soil erosion and the run-off from the farms, which can seep into the local watersheds. Erosion, in turn, often results in more chemical use to reverse the effects, causing a cycle of land degradation.
Deforestation is another consequence of sun-grown cultivation, with over 2.5 million acres of forest in Central America alone being cleared for coffee cultivation. Deforestation causes the release of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, which is not the type of change that will sustain coffee cultivation today or in the future.
The first phase of Solidaridad's climate-smart agriculture programme in Mexico, Colombia and Peru concluded with promising results. Solidaridad has now developed a proof of concept that combines higher and more consistent productivity and quality with improved environmental management.
Although the global coffee industry has invested considerably in the supply chain in the past year, coffee production is at risk. Climate change has taken a heavy toll on coffee farmers in particular. Solidaridad has been successful in building a business case for Climate Smart Agriculture in coffee producing countries. Public-private collaboration at the global and local level is required to scale up efforts and investments. By building on the certification efforts and going further, a shift to a continual improvement framework for sustainability based on performance rather than compliance is needed.
The Coffee Barometer 2014 was published. On July 3, 2014 the Sustainable Coffee Conference ‘The heat is on!’ took place in Amsterdam. During this one-day conference, the Coffee Barometer 2014 was presented. Solidaridad also organised a workshop on one of the main solutions to the challenges facing coffee growers: the adoption of climate-smart agriculture.
Solidaridad established a major food security programme in East Africa, which integrates horticulture with coffee production. In Latin America a climate-smart coffee production programme was launched to help farmers adapt to climate change.
Solidaridad adjusted its strategy based on lessons learnt. Certification alone cannot solve all the problems in the coffee sector. It is a instrument for making production more sustainable, however, only by going beyond certification criteria can we achieve a step-change in sustainability, with major benefits to farmer in developing countries.
Solidaridad developed coffee training packages focused on increased productivity, higher quality, reduced costs and better prices.
Solidaridad and SNV Netherlands Development Organisation started the PROCASO programme in Honduras to accelerate responsible coffee production practices and UTZ certification. By 2010, 25% of the coffee production from Honduras was certified and now Honduras is the fifth country producing sustainable standard-compliant coffee.
Solidaridad co-initiated UTZ Certified, a CSR label for coffee. In the beginning the organisation was called UTZ Kapeh. In the following year the concept was expanded from coffee to cocoa, tea and hazelnuts.
Solidaridad co-initiated the network organization of Fair Trade initiatives in Europe, which led directly to the formation of the international Fair Trade Organizations (FLO).
In 1987, Solidaridad set up the Max Havelaar foundation. Then in 1988, Solidaridad introduced the Max Havelaar label into the Dutch coffee market, which marked the starting point for Fair Trade certification.
Moving Beyond Certification
Our work with farmers goes beyond certification to building communities’ capacities to sustain themselves and the land they occupy. To this end, we focus on food security and climate-smart agriculture in cooperation with companies and governments so effective solutions become realities.
One of the key challenges in many parts of the world is encouraging young people to continue farming coffee. In Peru, we develop high school programmes that teach youth good agricultural practices to encourage them to continue working on family farms.
In Kenya, we cooperate with regional governments to give young people opportunities to lease land from poorly maintained coffee farms and train them in Good Agricultural Practices. We show them how to offer neighbouring farmers specialized services such as spraying and pruning.
Since many communities face growing food insecurity, we work with farmers on practices that will deliver fast, visible results at little or no cost, which also gives them additional motivation to further take up sustainability. Depending on the local situation, farmers can choose to grow additional crops, which generate both food for their families and income through selling surpluses.
Climate change is an issue that also affects coffee growers. We seek to help farmers adapt to these changes while reducing the pressure their farming practices place on the environment. In Central and South America, we work closely with other NGOs, banks and governments to help farmers adapt to climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We also identify new revenue streams for farmers, such as long-term credits for renovation of coffee plantations.
“There are other larger programmes, but the work you do is unique. Unlike others, where there are external experts, it is Ethiopians reaching the grassroots, working with primary cooperatives, training Ethiopians who work directly with the farmers.”
Tadesse Meskela General Manager Oromia Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union
Cooperating With Key Players
Transforming the coffee industry in a holistic manner means engaging actors throughout the supply chain to solidify sustainability of both people and planet as industry standards. We encourage companies to extend corporate cocial responsibility to the coffee sector.
We partner with Nestle, the largest coffee roaster in the world, by providing input for rural development and working together to develop projects in countries where Nestle sources coffee directly from producers, like in our East Africa food security programme.
Coffee traders are an important link in the sustainable coffee supply chain. Our work with the largest coffee traders centres on fostering sustainable supply chains. We give these companies access to our supply chain intelligence as well as ways to improve the effectiveness of projects using our result chain methodology.
Alongside companies, we also work with governments on policy and with coffee platforms to achieve sector-wide improvements. We seek this type of cooperation to not only ensure sustainable practice throughout the coffee supply chain, but to increase the uptake of certified, sustainable coffee to global markets.
"We want to help the coffee sector shift from being part of the problem to becoming part of the solution to deforestation and climate change. To achieve this we need an increase of revenue streams to finance the transition from business-as-usual to climate-smart agriculture."
Nico Roozen Executive Director Solidaridad Network
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Manager Corporate Engagement & Partnerships - Europe
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Small coffee growers, big changes
Helping farmers to adopt climate-smart agricultural practices is one of the the main strategies for Solidaridad in support of sustainability. To accomplish this, Solidaridad and its partners establish pilot projects and demonstration farms to provide farmers and businesses with tangible proof of the benefits of climate-smart agriculture.