The topic of sustainable growth is on the lips of almost everybody in the coffee industry today. What it implies, however, depends on who’s doing the talking. That was apparent at the recent National Coffee Association’s (NCA) Coffee Summit 2014, held in Boston last October. The reasons for touting Fairtrade Organic Coffee vary among retailers: some see it as a means of increasing market share and profit margins, while others think it a necessary step to decreasing the environmental impact of single-serve products.
While all these arguments are valid and worthy of discussion, one perspective often goes unheard – that of coffee farmers themselves. Given the advanced age of the average coffee farmer, the ravages of la roya, fluctuations in coffee prices, and the effects of climate change, is it safe to assume that green coffee is a sustainable resource? How can we guarantee, for instance, that farmers will not abandon coffee for a more profitable crop? How can we even be sure that their precarious financial situation will not force them out of agriculture altogether?
These questions in turn lead to another: how can we ensure sustainable growth for coffee farming?
Planting the seed for sustainable growth
Years of working in South America setting up and developing farmer-owned cooperatives have given me a keen appreciation for the hard reality most farmers face.
Given that many work in isolated areas, support – whether in the form of technical assistance or of training in efficient and ecological farming methods – is virtually inaccessible. If left unresolved, the lack of resources and the constant setbacks will affect farmers’ profit margins, their financial security, and ultimately their willingness to invest in coffee farming as a means of securing their family’s future.
This realization is what lead me to seek a sustainable solution, one that would guarantee farmers adequate returns, reduce the impact of farming on the environment, and provide a new source of coffee with added value to the buyer.
Preserving the future of coffee farming
My experiences in South America gave birth to the Shade Coffee and Cocoa Reforestation Project (SCCRP). The primary goal of the project is to improve the quality of life for participating farmers, and my partners and I are aware that the only way to achieve this is by addressing the underlying environmental issues. Be it burning fields as a weed control method or engaging in illegal logging and mining, poor forest management techniques have contributed to the depletion of forest cover, to soil erosion, and in turn, to a loss of income for local producers. These ecologically unsound practices can only impede the development of a sustainable economy for coffee-growing communities.
To counter these practices, we turned to working with small-scale farmers to reforest, restore and rebuild disused and deforested parcels of land through shade-grown agroforestry systems that promise high yields, better resistance to disease and, a high-quality, profit-generating crop.
The project regroups over 15,000 small-scale producers in 33 cooperatives that share a common vision of developing a sustainable economy through sound environmental farming practices combined with the increased produce and profits from their reforested lands.
We offer a comprehensive training program for local cooperatives and individual growers, one that focuses on updated farming and sustainable forestry methods. The goal is to educate our stakeholders on the realities of climate change and to give them the tools to combat it. Even in the short-term, this leads to an increase in productivity that will ultimately result in a sustainable agricultural program.
While reducing carbon footprints does factor into our evaluations of the success of the project, it is not the most important consideration. Increased income from newly planted crops, better landscape management, reduced soil erosion, as well as improved water quality will all lead to an increase in biodiversity and are thus equally important goals for us.
Our web-based in-house database – the Minka – gives us twenty-four hour access to information on reforested land parcels, their owner(s), and the scale of their crop production. This in turn allows us to track the results of the project.
An ethically sourced, risk-managed investment
In recent years, we have seen more and more high profile investors back projects that have turned out to use unsustainable sourcing practices. This has led us to establish regulated sourcing practices that are guaranteed to be free of any association with deforestation.
Through the SCCRP, buyers can access Fairtrade, organic, and environmentally friendly coffee, or as we like to call it: greener green coffee!
Sustainability: an industry wide-concern
Sustainable growth is clearly a hot topic in the industry. However, we need to take things step by step. While the environmental impact of single-serve products cannot be overlooked, we must first address the issue of making coffee farming a sustainable endeavour. After all, imagine the impact on the industry and the environment if coffee were to cost $10 a pound or run out altogether? Let’s stop the future of coffee farming from running dry.