Supporting regenerative agro-ecological coffee
By Anna Canning Communications Manager for Fair World Project, a U.S.-based non-profit.
Sustainable coffee: you’ve probably seen the phrase. You might have even bought some. The truth is, it’s not enough. “Sustainable” suggests that if we preserve what we have, we’ll be alright.
Unfortunately, as study after study has shown over the past few years, we’re on track to lose as much as 2/3 of productive coffee land on some continents by the year 2100.
Coffee requires very specific growing conditions and global climate change is rendering those places inhospitable. Add to that, historically low coffee prices on commodity markets in recent months, and ongoing consolidation in the marketplace—small-scale farmers are getting squeezed from every side.
While business as usual is most definitely not working, here’s what is: small-scale farmer-led agroecology projects, farmers practicing regenerative agricultural techniques, and agroforestry. Before we discuss what it would look like to grow regenerative coffee, coffee that supports farmers and communities, not just sustains a broken status quo, a little background on coffee.
Coffee is naturally a shade-loving understory plant. Traditionally, it is grown under a canopy of trees, some of the original agroforestry systems. It was only within the last 50 years that what one might call sun-grown coffee developed. An innovation of the Green Revolution, plantations cleared trees to pack in more coffee bushes. Yet these new “technified” farms also require lots of chemical fertilizers to feed the stressed plants.
The specialty coffee industry has come around to recognize the virtues of shade-grown coffee. Sheltered under trees, the coffee beans (seeds, really) develop slowly, which is thought to yield sweeter beans with more complex flavours. It also means less stressed plants that need less synthetic fertilizers, and less deforestation. What kind of shade matters too. Diverse agroforestry systems have been shown to enrich the soil and support better crops. Planting a diversity of trees is good for farmers too: fruit trees provide food, others provide timber, together they can help a farm family diversify their income and make them less dependent on coffee alone.
Coffee is naturally adapted to agroforestry. Yet coffee farmers use other regenerative farming techniques as well. Fruit left after the coffee bean has been depulped contributes to rich compost. That compost, plus layers of leaf litter from the tree canopy, helps sequester carbon, building better soil for the farmer and contributing to a healthier planet for us all. Around the globe, small-scale farmers continue to innovate site-specific, locally adapted techniques, and share their experiments. There’s no one-size-fits all solution—although, as the Green Revolution’s technified vision of the coffee plantation shows us, that tends not to be sustainable or healthy over the long term!
It’s not just coffee that’s in crisis. We need to make a global shift in farming practices. Pioneering organic researchers at the Rodale Institute have found that if we shifted current farmland to regenerative, organic farming practices, we could sequester 100% of annual global CO2 emissions.
While coffee is well-suited to that shift to regenerative organic practices, and coffee farmers are actually pioneering many of the techniques, they need support. For too long, farming education and extension services have been funded by big agribusiness. Small-scale farmers need investment. Fortunately, organizations are rising to that challenge.
The non-profit crowdfunding platform Grow Ahead makes it possible for ordinary people (or interested businesses) to invest in small-scale farmer-led learning and innovation. As just one example, often remote farmers have received much of their learning about new farming techniques from big agribusiness’ pesticide salesforce as they travel the countryside peddling their chemicals. Yet in Honduras, an association of coffee farmers, COMSA, has built their own organic diploma program, training small-scale farmers in regenerative, organic methods that their members have tested. It’s the kind of peer-to-peer education that’s low-cost, proven to make an impact—and easy to invest in via Grow Ahead.
Fair trade can also help support small-scale farmers as they make the transition to regenerative, organic coffee (or other crops), both through fair prices & strong trading relationships. In addition, so many of the steps we need to take to combat climate change are embedded in fair trade principles, including supporting women farmers, educating women and girls, paying fair prices to avert deforestation, and more.
It’s clear that we cannot sustain the status quo in coffee. But the good news is that small-scale farmers around the globe are developing innovative regenerative, organic farming techniques and growing delicious coffee. It’s up to us to support them and invest in the future of coffee.