Earth Day – How the Coffee Community is Making Positive Change

The global demand for coffee shows no signs of slowing, and experts believe it’s more likely to rise than fall in the coming years. At the same time, studies indicate that climate change will mean that anywhere from 20% to 80% of the land currently suitable for coffee production becomes unsuitable within 30 years. 

Although Conservation International’s report Coffee in the 21st Century says “the superabundance of suitable coffee growing areas is remarkable”, it also says “the greatest threat from expanded or shifted arabica production would most likely occur in the Andes and Central America, since most of the upslope areas in these regions are covered by mountain forest, a biome that is particularly rich in species diversity and endemism [uniqueness to that area].” This is a major concern. At origin today, we already see coffee being “chased up the mountain” by higher temperatures. 

This means deforestation owing to coffee is a real threat. Coffee farmers remove shade because coffee trees are typically more productive in full sun and they’re normally paid by the volume of coffee they produce. A growing number of companies are committing to zero deforestation, but this will only work if every roasting company in the world does the same. 

Viable varieties 

The Conservation International report says the answer lies in agronomic research and development that increases the productivity of existing land. And the good news is that World Coffee Research 

(WCR), the non-profit that researches coffee agricultural developments, says improved coffee varieties will indeed be able to produce more coffee on less land, tolerate significant global temperature increases, and produce more coffee under shade. This includes the new generation of varieties called F1 hybrids (see Caffeine #38), which are expected to change what’s possible for coffee producers. But more investment into coffee breeding and other climate-smart agriculture research is required – and WCR, funded by a group of companies from across the coffee industry, is driving this while also conducting essential research to ensure that these varieties and practices are profitable for farmers. 

One of WCR’s leading efforts in this area is the Global Coffee Monitoring Program (GCMP). When fully realised, this will be a network of more than a thousand on-farm technical trials testing combinations of improved varieties and climate-smart agronomic approaches to see which produces the highest profit for farmers in different circumstances. This will give producers an evidence-based method for making critical decisions  such as which variety to plant, what type of shade to use, and the most profitable crops for intercropping. For the first time, producers will have a tool that can tell them what the financial return will be on tree renovation and agronomy investments. By the end of 2019, WCR expects to have about 30% of this network planted, with a target of completion by 2022, although the full funding has not yet been secured. 

One of the agronomic treatments being tested is shade. The same researchers who told us 20%-80% of coffee-producing land could become unsuitable by 2050 also tell us that by utilising shade, much of that loss can be prevented. But we don’t know yet what combination of variety, ground cover, fertilisation and shade density can deliver the highest profits to producers. That’s where the GCMP comes in. 

Essential research 

This programme is so fundamental to the future sustainability of coffee production that more supporters are joining it all the time. The crucial return-on-investment information that will come from the technical trials is exactly the risk-assessment tool required to unleash private and public investments to drive large-scale replanting efforts. 

Although coffee is a multi-billion-dollar industry, it remains an under-researched, under-innovated crop. It requires R&D beyond the capability of a single company or state, which is why the industry formed WCR. Through its Check-off Program, roasters and importers can donate small amounts to support coffee’s future. Its funding of programmes like the GCMP is why your cup of coffee could be part of the solution to deforestation, rather than part of the problem. 


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Earth Day – How the Coffee Community is Making Positive Change