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 61% of total coffee production, while Robusta beans make up the rest.
Efforts to sustainably cultivate coffee began in earnest in the 1980s. In recent years, 55% of global coffee production was certified or verified by with one of the 7 mayor standards (4C, UTZ, CAFE Practices, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, Triple AAA and Organic), of which 20% was procured as standard-compliant coffee. Although volumes of certified and verified coffee have grown at farm level by 15% since 2012, there is a significant gap between volumes produced as sustainable and volumes reaching the market.
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 many 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 as they have old trees, small plots, and use inefficient cultivation methods. What is more, the cost of producing coffee is often higher for farmers that the payment that they receive. This makes coffee production economically unviable. Currently, the annual value of the coffee industry is $200 billion and only 10% of this value remains in producing countries.
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.
Digital tools offer enormous potential to enhance sustainability efforts. In 2017, Solidaridad commenced a digital journey with coffee farmers in both Peru and Colombia to focus on improving agricultural practices. The use of digital tools and farming data compliments Solidaridad’s existing work in these countries. Building on this knowledge ensures that new interventions are tailored to the specific needs of producers, and in a more efficient, more affordable manner.
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.
In response to rising temperatures, many producers are moving coffee farms to new or higher lands. Although these newly cleared fields are more fertile, deforestation magnifies the problem that forced them there in the first place. Since 2013, Solidaridad has been working across Colombia, Peru and Mexico to increase productivity on existing farms through climate-smart practices, and in turn, fighting deforestation.
The first phase of this programme proved that was economically viable to produce more coffee with less environmental impact. The programme worked with 7,361 producers that increased their yields in 21% on average. We have recently started a second phase of this programme, rolling out our climate-smart knowledge to 15,000 coffee producers in East Africa whilst scaling our reach in Latin America with with the support of traders and investors.
“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 value chain and ensuring that they collaborate to make coffee more sustainable.
Solidaridad has been a pioneer in the establishment of multi-stakeholder platforms. In 2013, we launched our first sustainability platform for coffee, the Sustainable Trade Platform. Since 2016, we are supporting the establishment of the Global Coffee Platform and the Sustainable Coffee Challenge. In 2017, we launched two new platforms in Honduras and Nicaragua. In 2018, we launched the sustainable coffee platform in Kenya, 'Sauti ya Kahawa' (Sound of Coffee in Swahili).
Coffee traders and roasters are important links in the value chain. We have strong partnership with private sector actors to transform their sourcing policies and practices whilst providing sustainability intelligence. Some of our partners in the coffee sector are Nestlé, ECOM, Louis Dreyfus, Farmer’s Brothers, amongst many others others.
Alongside companies, we also work with governments in Latin America, East Africa and Europe to ensure that there is an enabling environment to produce sustainable coffee.
"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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