July 5, 2021

Understanding carbon-neutral coffee production


Sustainability is becoming an increasingly important topic for businesses around the world, including those in the coffee sector.

A 2021 report by the NCA found that people aged between 20 and 49 accounted for 38% of all specialty coffee consumption in the US. It’s well-documented that this age group has become increasingly conscious of their impact on the environment and continue to push for sustainable change the world over. 

While there is a focus on how coffee consumption affects the environment, coffee production does account for a significant portion of the supply chain’s carbon footprint. And as we know farmers stand to suffer the most from climate change, the need to cut the carbon emissions generated by growing coffee is greater than ever.

To learn more, I spoke with four coffee professionals from Sucafina – a leading sustainable farm-to-roaster coffee company.

You may also like our article exploring the Chinese coffee supply chain.

Sustainability issues in the coffee sector

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that global agriculture (including coffee production) accounts for some 10% to 12% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Carbon dioxide is responsible for around 75% of all global GHG emissions. Levels are currently at the highest ever recorded, largely due to human activity.

Danna Wasserman is a trader and Q grader at Sucafina Specialty NA. “On a global scale, farming is one of the main contributors towards our GHG emissions,” she explains. “The majority of GHG emissions in coffee production comes from fertiliser use and wastewater at washing stations.

“There is also the issue of coffee production contributing to deforestation, and of course packaging and transportation.”

It’s also important to note that the GHG emissions generated by coffee production differ from country to country. This can make accurate measurements and comparisons difficult, and also means it’s more challenging to create a one-size-fits-all solution for cutting carbon emissions, as each country or region’s needs will differ.

Mona Philippon is the Specialty Supply Chain Officer at Rwacof Exports in Kigali, central Rwanda, a Sucafina sister company. 

She says: “One of the main challenges for smallholders in Rwanda is the poor quality of the soil. This is partially caused by the country’s topography, along with its heavy rains.” 

Instead, this means farmers turn instead to using cheaper chemical fertilisers.

“[But the problem] is a lack of organic matter in soils, so the [cheaper] chemical fertilisers are generally ineffective,” she tells me. “[Nonetheless], they are the major source of carbon emissions at farm level.”

Why do we need to reduce carbon emissions?

In 2019, National Geographic stated the world has only one-fifth of its total “carbon budget” left before a global increase in temperature of 1.5°C would occur. This would have a range of devastating environmental impacts, threatening biodiversity and leading to more frequent extreme weather around the world.

Cory Bush is the Managing Director at Sucafina Specialty EMEA. He explains that coffee producing countries are often among those who suffer the most from these weather patterns.

“Coffee-producing countries are increasingly subject to the extreme weather conditions that appear to be directly related to climate change,” he explains. “They are some of the most exposed to the tragic impacts of increasing carbon emissions.”

While carbon dioxide is produced naturally, human activity has vastly increased the amount we emit. Carbon dioxide – along with other GHGs – acts as a “barrier” that traps heat in the atmosphere and causes global temperatures to rise.

The 1.5°C increase estimated by National Geographic would put 14% of the world’s population at risk of experiencing severe heat waves at least every five years. Coffee-growing communities would be among those affected.

Furthermore, higher temperatures, growing drought risk, and unpredictable rainfall patterns are already affecting coffee production. In response, farmers are often forced to “chase” higher altitudes in search of optimal growing conditions, or resort to more efficient but less sustainable farming practices.

Cory says: “If this continues, farmers and their children will have no choice but to look for easier and more rewarding ways of making a living, or take shortcuts which destroy the soil and water they use to farm.”

He adds that unless drastic changes are made and carbon emissions are reduced, the future of the coffee industry could be at stake.

“If farming communities are not prosperous, and fail to farm in environmentally sustainable ways, it’s hard to imagine how the coffee industry can continue to produce high quality coffee to meet the needs of a growing consumer base.

“At Sucafina, we focus our sustainability efforts across three main areas: ‘Caring for People’, ‘Investing in Farmers’, and ‘Protecting the Planet’. Without a deep dive into these issues, our industry runs the risk of disappearing or substantially changing.”

Measuring the carbon footprint of coffee

To measure the carbon footprint of a product or service, you need to quantify its carbon dioxide and other GHG emissions across a specified timeframe. This forms a “map” which can be used to decide further actions to minimise the emissions.

Ross Khaiitbaev is the Managing Director of Sucafina Specialty Australia. He says: “By mapping out our carbon footprint, we can identify the hotspots across the entire supply chain, then spend time and resources solving those problems.”

Mona adds that one of Rwacof’s aims is to create a more sustainable and equitable supply chain for Rwandan coffee farmers. To this end, she tells me that the company recently mapped its carbon emissions.

“In March 2021, we received the results of Rwacof’s carbon mapping exercise,” she says. “Overall, the study shows that for 1kg of green coffee exported, we generate 3kg of CO2.

“The carbon mapping exercise explored our supply chain from farm to export, and found that 45% of our total carbon emissions are generated at farm level.”

Mona emphasises that certain aspects of coffee production in Rwanda contribute more GHG emissions than others.

“For every 1kg of green coffee exported, 1.4kg of carbon dioxide is emitted at the first stage of the supply chain, mainly due to the use of chemical fertilisers.

“The carbon mapping exercise also revealed that 40% of our emissions come from the washing station. The majority of it is caused by the methane emissions from wastewater treatment.”

While methane only remains in the atmosphere for around 12 years, it is believed to be 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in our atmosphere.

Achieving carbon neutrality & negativity

Growing carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative coffee is a long-term process, and it requires dedicated planning. 

In recent months and years, large-scale coffee chains, such as Starbucks, have started to set targets for sourcing carbon-neutral coffee. This is generally achieved through a range of initiatives, which can include improving soil nutrition, minimising chemical fertiliser use, and mass replanting.

“Better agricultural practices and access to quality information is key,” Ross says. “Sucafina is currently working with farmers in Kenya, where our teams are providing technical assistance and carrying out soil testing.

“We found that some farmers were over-fertilising their crops or using a mix of inputs not tailored to their soil’s needs, and by working with them, we were able to not only cut down their emissions, but also reduce their input costs and increase their profitability.”

Mona notes that Rwacof has also developed some alternative initiatives to address both soil health and fertiliser use. 

“In partnership with The Bug Picture and COPED, we have developed a black soldier fly facility which produces organic fertiliser while recycling organic and coffee cherry pulp waste,” she says.

Black soldier flies are common around the world. They play an important role in breaking down organic matter to replenish the nutrients in soil.

Danna adds: “The maggots are repurposed as animal feed, while the compost is mixed to meet the specifications for Rwandan soil, before being distributed to farmers in our network.”

Chemical fertilisers can be beneficial for farmers, but in the long term some can alter soil pH levels over time. Once pH reaches 5.5 (acidic) crop yields can fall drastically. Leaching can also occur – which is where chemical run-off seeps into groundwater and disrupts the ecosystem. 

Furthermore, cheaper chemical fertilisers tend not to be optimised for local soil, meaning that they don’t actually improve soil health and crop nutrition as much as farmers might assume. There can even be issues with the fertiliser not binding to the soil itself.

“Natural fertiliser is cheaper and it has several upsides for carbon emissions: it is locally produced instead of transported from a remote location, it removes waste from landfills to protect arable land, and helps sequester more carbon dioxide into the soil.”

Carbon sequestration is the process of capturing and storing carbon dioxide, thereby removing it from the atmosphere and mitigating its warming effects. CO2 is mainly captured by plants during photosynthesis, and can be stored for decades.

How can we benefit from carbon-neutral coffee?

Cory tells me that reaching carbon neutrality (or even carbon negativity) in the coffee sector is essential. 

“A focus on carbon negativity can hopefully help us restore some of the balance in the natural environment, or at least slow down the ever-worsening cycle of natural disasters.”

Economic sustainability is also important. As the market for carbon-neutral coffee grows, it’s vital that farmers can keep up with the changing demands and standards.

“Without external financial input, the growers who lack investment capacity (which is the case for the average Rwandan farmer) and are subsequently unable to comply with these new standards are at risk of losing their market access.”

However, carbon-neutral or negative coffee can help farmers become more sustainable. Mona explains that to this end, Rwacof is helping producers to improve their farms.

“We’re hoping to help farmers increase their yearly income – which is roughly US $150 to $200 per annum for the average farmer – by improving the yield and quality of their farms,” she says.

The hope is that this will then “trickle down” through the supply chain.

“A butterfly effect takes place from dry mill to final consumer,” Mona tells me. “Increased yields and higher quality benefit all actors across the supply chain – especially in Rwanda, where the volume of cherries harvested is decreasing year on year.”

Carbon-neutral coffee also represents an opportunity for other coffee sector stakeholders. As much as 75% of millennials are willing to pay a premium for sustainable products, giving roasters the opportunity to tap into a growing market. 

Danna notes: “As consumers look to cut their overall carbon footprint, we see a growing interest in carbon-reduced or carbon-neutral coffee.”

Cory adds: “From a retailer perspective, a focus on carbon will become an absolute requirement in the next five to ten years.”

Immediate action is needed to cut global GHG emissions, and while the coffee sector is by no means alone, any kind of switch to carbon-neutral coffee production can help.

In addition, as the consumer demand for sustainable goods grows, producers will find that growing carbon-neutral coffee can help them secure a better price for their crop.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on exploring the environmental impact of coffee roasting.

Photo credits: Sucafina, The Bug Picture

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