Let's stand up and toast for international coffee day with a sustainable cup!

“For billions of consumers around the globe, the day starts with a fresh cup of coffee, and it’s one of the most pleasurable day experiences… for millions of producers, most of them smallholders in less developed countries, coffee is the main source of income; growing coffee helps these rural families to meet their daily needs, purchase food and cloth or pays for their children’s education…”
— Oliviera, 2015

I vividly recall these words from Robério Oliviera Silva, executive director of the International Coffee Organization (ICO), who welcomed the audience to our session The role of agro-ecology in exploring innovative and viable adaptation measures during the Global Landscape Forum in December 2015 in Paris. It is incredible to think that something as small and essential to my life as a cup of coffee is related to the life of so many people around to world. As many topics that might determine the future of our region, this one has a dark and a bright side.

The dark side of the cup

Coffee is part of daily culture in Europe, North America and Latin America. Drinking coffee connects us directly with major producing countries like Brazil, Vietnam or Colombia. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee and it still is an important export income generator in Central American and African countries. Annually, more than 140 million bags of coffee are traded and demand is still increasing, especially from the growing middle class in Asia.

Despite all this, the coffee sector seems to be in a constant crisis. Last week the ICO even published a report quoting that coffee is no longer a viable business. Volatile prices and rapidly changing climatic conditions are the major contributing factors. Recent forecast models from CIAT illustrate scenarios in 2050 in which coffee production will no longer be suitable in many current growing areas. A changing climate, associated with a lack of good agricultural practices, will reduce productivity and increase vulnerability to pests and diseases.

Furthermore, there are significant changes in land use. Former coffee growing areas have lost ground to urbanization and at the same time, producers have migrated to other regions to cultivate coffee, which leads in most cases to deforestation. Meanwhile, the average age of coffee producers is above 50 years and their children follow their own, separate paths.

The bright side of the cup

There are thousands of studies pointing out the factors of this crisis, but there are also hundreds of studies showing the way to reverse this path. Collaborative actions between actors that interact in coffee landscapes could help modify these forecasts. Creating resilience in the coffee sector at all levels, -from the farm to the cup- can only be possible throughout joint efforts.

Ever since the 60’s and the 70’s when the fair trade movement in Europe started importing “solidarity” coffee from countries such as Nicaragua and Angola, all the way to our days, when experiments in direct trade and micro lots took off, the coffee sector is exploring all aspects of sustainability. Currently, talking about excellence of cup implies addressing gender equity, natural resources management, efficient finance, administration and adoption of the best agricultural practices.

International verification and certification standard systems have created a baseline for sustainable coffee production; nonetheless we need to achieve more in a shorter amount of time. Promising areas of work relate to the advantages of agro-forestry coffee systems in comparison to unshaded coffee. In recent years, various case studies have shown satisfactory payment for environmental services schemes in coffee landscapes, with the Costa Rican Coffee NAMA experience as the most remarkable.

This year has also been quite full of milestones towards coffee sustainability. Last April in Ethiopia, during the International Coffee Conference, important players were discussing the pathway to make coffee the first 100% sustainable commodity worldwide, a movement that is growing steadily. Next week, a major part of coffee sector stakeholders will be moving towards more pre-competitive collaboration by launching the Global Coffee Platform.

Another remarkable initiative that launched in 2016 is the Sustainable Coffee Challenge of Conservation International. These compromises are articulated into initiatives such as Coffee&Climate and SAFE; this last one a platform managed by Hivos and powered by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) that gathers together key players in Latin America to pursue collective approaches, developing 100% responsible and sustainable sourcing models for social, economic and environmental impact in coffee and cocoa lands. Platform partners are playing an active role in leading this dialogue and pushing for more coordination: Ambition is high, but certainly needed.

My mental journey from Robério Oliviera Silva’s words from 2015 goes all the way to SAFE and ends in 2016 at my desk, right at my delicious cup of coffee. I can’t help but sit back and enjoy being in the midst of these great, positive coalitions that give my cup and all coffee cups, a much brighter side. Let’s celebrate this international coffee day

Photo: David Joyce