Your morning cup: now with more trees

I came to work in conservation through my love of trees.

These days I spend most of my time thinking about the future of a tree that many people love, even if they don’t think about it very much: the coffee tree.

The irony is not lost on me that I don’t actually drink coffee, though I’m definitely in the minority on this: Globally, people drink 600 billion cups of coffee every year. With US$ 22 billion in global sales, coffee is the world’s most traded tropical agricultural commodity.

The reason that coffee trees consume so much of my time is that the potential environmental impact of coffee is huge: Coffee is currently grown on roughly 11 million hectares (more than 27 million acres, an area of land about the size of Cuba) in 50 countries. Much of the anticipated growth in coffee demand over the next 10 years will take place in forested areas — thus driving deforestation — unless more sustainable production methods that increase productivity on existing farms are introduced.

The impact on people is no less important. At the heart of the coffee trade are 25 million small-scale farmers who produce 90% of the global coffee supply. These farmers and the workers they employ rely on the revenue from coffee sales to support their families. In fact, women are active participants in smallholder production, especially in the washing, drying and processing of coffee beans.

That’s why Conservation International (CI) began working with Starbucks Coffee Company more than 15 years ago to act on its commitment to sustainable coffee sourcing. In the late 1990s, we worked together to develop standards that would guide coffee purchasing for the program that became the Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices program.

To date, producers from 22 countries have participated in the program, boosting the incomes of more than one million farmers and farm workers. Participating farms also have designated 121,000 hectares (nearly 300,000 acres) in any given year for conservation. This year, Starbucks announced a milestone: 99% of its coffee is ethically sourced through the program, making the company the largest coffee retailer to achieve this standard.

Starting today, in celebration of National Coffee Day, Starbucks will contribute 70 cents (the cost of a new tree) to CI for every bag of coffee sold at participating stores in the U.S. and Canada. CI will in turn make grants to seedling nurseries that will provide trees directly to coffee farmers in El Salvador, Guatemala, Indonesia and Mexico.

And there’s a very good reason why they need more trees.

Down on the farm

Crop rotation is a feature of any farm, and coffee farms are no different. Climate change, aging coffee trees and outbreaks of pests and disease are harming coffee production, the stability of farmer livelihoods and forest conservation. Rejuvenation – replacing old trees with new ones – is needed to enable coffee to withstand and better adapt to these challenges. These new coffee trees, which reach maturity after three years, can optimize production by increasing the yield per tree as well as by reducing the risk of disease outbreak — younger trees and certain varieties of coffee trees tend to have a higher resistance to pests or diseases such as coffee rust.

Ideally, farmers would be able to slowly rejuvenate their farms, choosing a portion of area to replant annually. This reduces the risks and financial burdens associated with rotation — the cost of purchasing seedlings, lost production as the young trees mature, etc. However, due to climate variability in many coffee-growing countries, combined with significant pest and disease outbreaks in recent decades, farmers in many places are in desperate need of support to speed up the process.

There’s a potential side effect of any re-planting project: Farmers could cut down or otherwise encroach on existing forests rather than replacing existing coffee trees, or clear shade trees that provide important habitat in coffee producing regions. Another issue: They could feel pressured to participate in the program.

As a partner in this effort, CI is working with Starbucks and the administrator of the nurseries to put in place the following safeguards to ensure against unanticipated impacts on forest conservation and coffee producers:

  • Farmers agree not to plant the new coffee seedlings in natural forest areas.
  • Farmers agree to maintain any existing native shade tree species unless they compete significantly with the coffee trees.
  • Farmers acknowledge that the decision to participate in the program to rejuvenate a portion of their farm was made freely.

CI will monitor these safeguards to ensure fairness and compliance. We believe these safeguards can serve as a model for the coffee sector in undertaking rejuvenation programs. In the meantime, we’ll share updates here on the blog about how this project is working — and how many new coffee trees are planted over the next year.

Until then, enjoy your “morning joe” — and help the people who help make it possible.

Bambi Semroc is the senior strategic advisor in CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business.

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