A UN report last year found that humanity must overhaul the global food system to curb deforestation and stop climate breakdown.
This year, at New York Climate Week, one conservationist offered a climate-friendly solution to producing one of the world’s favorite crops: coffee.
Joining environmental scientists, government leaders and economists at a virtual panel to explore the impact of food on the climate, Conservation International’s coffee expert Bambi Semroc explained why coffee contributes so much more to people than just a morning boost.
“Coffee is usually grown in and around important areas for conservation,” she said. “In protecting those forests, it helps promote a stable climate for our health and wellness.”
Many sustainable coffee farmers grow their crops under a canopy of taller trees — known as “shade trees” — which help regulate the coffee plant’s temperature and promote growth, while providing habitats for native biodiversity and absorbing carbon emissions. Recent analysis from Conservation international experts found that if coffee production increases on existing lands rather than expanding deeper into forests, it could secure over 1.5 gigatons of carbon — equivalent to taking more than 300 million cars off the road for a year — through avoided emissions and carbon storage.
- READ MORE: What on Earth is ‘sustainable’ coffee?
According to Semroc, stemming deforestation from coffee production is not only good for the climate, it is critical for human well-being.
“When coffee farming is done sustainably, it actually invests in nature conservation and it helps protect us from future pandemics,” she said.
In fact, a recent study co-authored by Conservation International experts found that decreasing deforestation worldwide could reduce the risk of forest loss-related disease spillover by as much as 40 percent in high-risk areas.
However, coffee production is expected to triple by 2050 to meet growing market demands, which could drive the destruction of more than 30 million hectares (more than 74 million acres) forests to make room for coffee crops. In the face of a climate and public health crisis, avoiding this amount of deforestation by increasing coffee production on existing farms is more important than ever, Semroc explained.
“We cannot just think about coffee as a victim of climate change … but really trying to think about how we can leverage the knowledge, insight and stewardship that coffee farmers are doing every day to benefit our climate,” she said. “We have to double-down on sustainable coffee production on our existing lands, we need to improve shade systems and integrate other agroforestry practices.”
To do this, Conservation International launched the Sustainable Coffee Challenge — an initiative working to make coffee the world’s first completely sustainable agricultural product. With more than 155 partners — including Starbucks, McDonald’s and Dunkin’ — the Sustainable Coffee Challenge has been collaborating with members of the coffee sector since 2015 to improve labor practices, increase sustainable sourcing and ensure that coffee farms have a positive impact on the climate.
“We know we need to invest in agricultural commodities that can really be part of the [climate change] solution,” Semroc said. “We also know that coffee can be part of that success story.”
Other coverage from Climate Week:
At Walmart’s Sustainability Milestone Summit, business leaders and conservationists shared how they are protecting nature — and why that is so important for the global economy. “Every dollar spent to protect nature gives back five in return,” Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan explained.
For centuries, social injustices against Indigenous peoples have hindered their ability to conserve the nature they depend on. A group of Indigenous leaders — including climate activist and Conservation International Board Member Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim — explains how to change that.
Bambi Semroc is the vice president of the Center for Sustainable Lands and Seas at Conservation International. Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.
Cover image: Tapajós National Forest, Pará, Brazil (© Flavio Forner)