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How to make coffee become regenerative

You are probably reading this with a cup of coffee in your hand, aren’t you? Despite coffee being the most popular beverage consumed in the entire world, few consumers are aware of the impact their choices have on our natural ecosystems – and in turn, how this affects us. For instance, how climate change is affecting coffee farmers today. In this article we will highlight the voices of farmers on the ground who are pioneering change in the coffee industry at a time we need it most. 

“We have a cloud hovering over our head. It’s dramatically serious. Climate change can have a significant adverse effect in the short term. It’s no longer about the future; it’s the present.”

Mario Cerutti, Green Coffee & Corporate Relations, Partner Lavazza 

Industry giants like Lavazza and Starbucks agree on one thing: the sustainability in coffee agriculture has to move up the supply chain. Coffee waste upcycling and recyclable pods are nice, but will not move the needle in terms of impact. We have to start with the trees and the farmers.

Risk mitigation in coffee agriculture

This last quarter farmers continued to suffer from the volatility of coffee prices: the markets experienced even more spikes now that covid-19 has the world in its grip. With more extreme weather events and temperatures rising until the end of the century, the industry might undergo its biggest challenge yet. The combined market and climate volatility will add risk to both producers and consumers: The bush-like plant is sensitive to sun, wind and temperature and likes to be protected and has particular growing preferences.

Climatic risk in coffee production is lowest when there is an average annual temperature of 18-22°, annual water deficit of less than 100mm and frost probability of less than 1%. In one research from Nicaragua, where major agro-climatic shifts are to be expected until 2050, coffee farmers producing in altitudes from around 500m-1400m are at highest risk of negative impact. On the other hand, the unlocking of newly productive areas can lead to a positive impact for those farmers cultivating in altitudes higher than that.

25M coffee farmers, most of which are smallholder farmers in low- to middle-income countries are dependent on the succes or failure of their coffee harvests (Source, Unsplash / Delightin Dee)

Already today this volatility has startling implications for the 25M coffee producers globally, most of which are smallholder farmers in low- to middle-income countries. In many producing countries, like for instance Brazil, desertification is slowly causing decreases in yield.

A whopping 1200 smallholders in Nespresso’s sourcing network are reporting steady declines. This has prompted the company to fund agroforestry programs at landscape level to mitigate risk. Recognising that coffee trees are native to tropical forests was instrumental to coming up with their ambitious plans to mitigate risk in the supply chain: to plant 10 million trees as part of coffee-based agroforestry systems.

Without proper adaptation measures like the one mentioned above, yields across tropical geographies of all major coffee-producing countries are projected to decrease by 25-75%. Not only yields, but also the plant’s resistance to disease is affected. The severity of coffee berry borer attacks for instance, a principle disease of the coffee plant, is expected to increase.

Rather than using pesticides, agroforestry aims to restore biodiversity and increase the prevalence of the borer beetle’s natural predator: birds. On one Costa Rican farm, the case for pest-control through reforestation led to an estimated cost reduction of 15% per hectare. 

Cooler temperatures provide a slower maturation process for the bean, yielding deeper flavors (Source: Shutterstock).

Challenges to scale regenerative coffee

Successful climate risk mitigation only works at landscape scale and when entire micro-climates have the chance to be transformed. We are fortunate to have met farmers who share an ambition to implement projects at such scale and partnered to deliver 3 coffee-based agroforestry systems, including our projects in Brazil and Rwanda. Together with one of our Brazilian partners, Eduardo Sousa from Tropicália, we introduced a multi-strata agroforestry coffee system consisting of 5 species and it showed early successes already 6 months after planting.

According to Eduardo, the whole area around his farm Fazenda Pedra Preta has transformed completely:

We now have around 4 hectares of arabica coffee, African mahogany, bananas, and different soil coverage species like macadamia. During this process, fauna and flora have gradually been re-integrated with the fields, bringing a diversity of insects, animals, and plants that cannot be found in monoculture areas. For these reasons, we see a better balance between our production with nature, bringing several benefits to our cultivation.”

The Tropicália multi-strata agroforestry system, although only established recently, shows promising result according to Eduardo Sousa, the project’s farmer.

The diverse and integrated system has been key to the success, as Eduardo explains:

“Bananas have been the perfect shade for coffee seedlings during the first year, preventing extremely high temperatures, low temperatures, wind, and diseases. While it’s already the third banana harvest, the coffee plants are now flowering for the first time. Besides that, the African mahogany trees are on average already two meters high. The coverage soil plants have been the best way to tackle pest and disease pressure while aiding water retention, helping the small roots system of coffee to reach water easily. We are thrilled for our first coffee harvest next year.

The design allows for mechanisation which will be important to control the operational costs once the system scales to 200 hectares. With the agroforestry system maturing, Eduardo is taking the fist steps to shift away from an input-based to a process-based agriculture, which can result in cost reduction.

There are more benefits for the farmer: agroforestry has proven to be effective in local climate adaptation across different tropical geographies, such as in Ghana, while diversifying income streams. As opposed to intensive input-based agriculture, agroforestry puts the farmer and their skills in the centre of the entire system. The next step in scaling up is to eventually build a Model School in which hundreds of farmers will be able to engage in peer learning around different topics: mixed farming, forestry systems and regenerative farming. 

Our Model Farm in the Verstegen project, on Bangka, Indonesia, trained farmers in regenerative agroforestry practices. Model Schools scale up these knowledge dissemination efforts.

This education in agricultural practice is necessary, according to Bruno Souza, owner of Academia do Café. It will not come without difficulties, however. A monocrop system, as risk-prone to climate change as it may be, is still the golden standard for being less labor intensive while maximising yields per hectare. Making agroforestry appealing to millions of smallholder farmers is a herculean task. Climate disaster in the form of extreme drought and desertification might be able to shift farmer’s sentiment quicker. 

Coming from the same region as Eduardo, Bruno acknowledges the fact that in his region maximum temperatures have risen between 1.3 and 4.9° since 1960. Worse even, the desertification rate in the mid-2010s went up by close to 500% putting 35M Brazilians at risk of poverty and harvest loss. Bruno says it’s time to act. As one of the first Q-graders in Brazil he trains the next generation of coffee tasters and ships specialty-grade coffee to both the US and the European market. He sees his farm as ready to implement more regenerative practices:

“I am willing to experiment and will introduce a semi-shaded system on around 18 hectares before my next harvest. My soil health will benefit which in turn will produce a higher quality bean. I cannot change 100% of my farm tomorrow, but the time to act is now. It’s the right thing to do.” 

Banana protects the coffee with shade and its biomass can be used to build soil in the system (Source: Fazenda Recanto dos Tucanos).

Agroforestry affects cup quality

This is a story of how an accidental agroforestry at Fazenda Recanto dos Tucanos got awarded the highest evaluation in the Brazilian coffee awards of 2019: Wilians Júnior followed his father’s footsteps and took over the work at their ranch in Alto Caparaó, Minas Gerais. When he was young, the area hosted over 3000 coffee trees. At the time, there was no specialty coffee market and growers his size faced an impossible price challenge which led him to change his main culture from coffee to fruit trees: peach, pear and olives.

Decades later, it was exactly those new crops that provided the foundation for the most successful coffee of this region. Together with his father he decided to stop pruning the remaining coffee trees and let them sprout again: the result was an award-winning coffee produced in a multi-strata agroforestry system.

The fruit trees introduced shade and more biodiversity from which the coffee ultimately benefited. They have refined their land management ever since and even introduced bananas as a biomass species to help feed the trees. The quality of the cup is not just the quality of the bean but that of the soils, which feeds the plant. During the International Coffee Week this cup was recognised with a 88.3, a remarkable cupping score.

Q-grading is a highly controlled procedure where coffee is graded on a scale that goes up to a 100 points based on coffee parameters including acidity, body, flavour, aftertaste, uniformity, balance, sweetness (Source: Northstarroast).

The role of the consumer

As awareness about coffee agriculture rises, part of the solution to the challenges posed by climate change can be found with the consumer. Businesses who dare tell the story of farmers like Eduardo and Bruno, can fund the transition to these systems together with the consumer. There could not be a better time in history to achieve this transition at scale.

The boom in specialty coffee over the recent years has led to the 5th wave of coffee culture, driven by millennial and Gen Z demand. With customers of this demographic being more technically engaged and environmentally conscious, direct trade has picked up. The next generation of urban consumers demands a story, like the one of Willians Junior highlighted above, and yearns for connection with the farmer and the earth. 

The evolution of coffee culture development, highlighting the 5th wave typology on the right (Source: World Coffee Portal).

Each wave brings a new form of appreciation to the culture. Compared to wine and tea, coffee is argued to still have very little price-quality segmentation. Tremendous opportunity lies in the premium segment to involve the consumer directly into the process by enabling the sourcing of coffee that is produced in a forest-like environment.

Would you pay more for your cup and choose consciously if you knew that in your choice lies the power to regenerate our land? We are still at an early market for this, but a few frontrunners like Patagonia Provisions demonstrate the case for regenerative organic to the consumer.

Regenerative Agroforestry coffee is the future

Agroforestry coffee can improve climate adaptation, reduce desertification, and enhance biodiversity, all of which benefit the health of the agricultural system, the quality of the coffee bean, the farmer’s wallet, and the taste of your cup.

With rapid environmental change, business as usual is no longer an option, whilst consumers are increasingly demanding environmentally and socially responsible products. The time for Regenerative Agroforestry coffee is now!


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