July 19, 2021

What is carbon-negative coffee?

Traceability and sustainability are two terms that we often use when talking about how coffee is grown and sourced. More than ever, people want to know more about where their coffee has come from, and environmentally-conscious consumer buying habits are only continuing to grow.

With this in mind, coffee companies are now trying to discuss their efforts to combat climate change. Around the world, producers, traders, and buyers alike are all looking for ways to minimise their carbon footprint.

But while becoming carbon-neutral has become an industry priority in recent years, there are some stakeholders across the industry who go further – becoming “carbon-negative”.

To learn more about carbon-negative coffee, I spoke to Isabela Pascoal Becker, Director of Sustainability at Daterra, and Priscilla Daniel and Henry Clifford, two Senior Coffee Traders at DRWakefield. Read on to find out what they told me.

You might also like our article on how climate change affects coffee production.

unpacked coffee bags

Breaking down the terminology

Whenever we talk about a company’s environmental impact, it’s easy to get lost in the jargon. To start, we’re going to break down a few key terms that brands use when talking about their carbon emissions.

Let’s start with the concept of a carbon footprint. In basic terms, this is the net amount of carbon dioxide that a company is responsible for releasing into the atmosphere.

This isn’t just calculated from the amount of fuel a company uses, however. It also takes into account the “carbon cost” of everything from fossil fuel use and land clearance to transportation, waste disposal, and even food consumption.

A company’s carbon footprint is generally measured in tonnes of CO2 equivalent, or CO2eq. In many cases, it’s difficult to calculate a “true” carbon footprint, as there are so many data points. 

When a company’s carbon footprint reaches zero (often referred to as “net zero”), the brand is considered to be carbon-neutral.

But reaching net zero is not as easy as it might sound. For many businesses, energy or fuel use are integral parts of day-to-day operations. Simply eliminating emissions outright is often not feasible. While brands can often minimise their carbon footprint and operate more sustainably, becoming carbon-neutral is a much bigger task.

In response, some businesses have now started to help other companies “balance out” their emissions. They operate environmental schemes around the world (reforestation, green energy, or oil regeneration, for instance). 

Firms looking to reduce their carbon footprint can purchase “carbon credits” from these companies. They thereby fund a sustainability project elsewhere, and consequently balance out their footprint indirectly.

Buying carbon credits is just one of the ways that companies can reduce their carbon footprint. However, if they continue to absorb or eliminate carbon emissions to a point that they remove more CO2 than they generate, they are deemed to be carbon-negative.

hands holding ripe coffee

What about coffee farms?

On coffee farms, producers have another option. This is carbon sequestration: the process of naturally absorbing carbon dioxide that exists in the atmosphere.

This occurs through a number of natural processes, but perhaps the most well-known is photosynthesis. Plants use carbon dioxide and water to generate chemical energy for growth, and release oxygen as a byproduct – effectively removing the CO2 from the atmosphere.

Photosynthesis does occur naturally in coffee plants. However, the amount of energy used during production (for planting, fertilising, harvesting, processing, and so on) means that each plant’s photosynthesis is often insufficient to balance out the emissions generated by cultivating it.

This is why some farms have adopted sustainable agriculture methods such as agroforestry. Growing their cofee plants among other trees (such as fruit or shade trees) allows farmers to “balance out” the emissions that coffee cultivation generates.

Isabela tells me about Daterra’s farm, which is based in Patrocínio, in Minas Gerais, Brazil.  She says: “At Daterra, we produce around 90,000 60kg bags of coffee every year. 

“We have around 6,800ha of farmland, but only half of that is devoted to production; the other half is for conservation. To support the production of carbon-negative coffee, our conservation area stores approximately 1.2 million tons of CO2.”

However, she also notes that their commitment to sustainability doesn’t just help them reduce their carbon footprint. Their dedication to sustainable agriculture improves soil health in the long term, which in turn helps to maximise coffee quality. 

Beyond that, Daterra’s conservation efforts also support biodiversity across the farm, securing habitats for animals, insects, native plant life and more. 

Daterra farm sign

Why is it important?

Firstly, it remains a priority for businesses around the world to cut their carbon emissions to mitigate their contribution to climate change.

Coffee producing countries are among those that are most affected by the impact of climate change. Increased drought risk, extreme weather patterns, and unpredictable rainfall all affect coffee producers directly – as do temperature increases.

The arabica plant grows best at temperatures between 18 and 21°C with little fluctuation. If the temperature on a coffee farm increases, producers are then forced to “climb higher” in search of cooler temperatures. 

Ultimately, climate change means that the amount of land around the world that is suitable for coffee production is shrinking.

Isabela says: “The major impact from agribusiness is the climate change from greenhouse gas emissions. The sources that are [often] responsible for this are fertilisers and the chemical products.

“Beyond that, we also have to consider that agribusiness is by its very nature water-intensive. Water usage and CO2 emissions are, in general, our biggest concerns.”

It’s also important to note that environmentally responsible coffee production is becoming a requirement for market access. In the EU, for example, new legislation coming into effect in 2022 will affect the import of some products that do not meet certain environmental care standards.

Furthermore, sustainability continues to rise up the agenda for consumers. A 2020 report by Deloitte notes that some 43% of all consumers reported choosing brands with environmentally responsible practices or values. 

Henry from DRWakefield adds that redefining what we look for in terms of quality could add more value in the long term. 

“Quality is something that may have to be redefined,” he explains. “For example, if we want to pay a producer a really high price for a vacuum-packed competition lot, then that’s really great that the producer gets a lot of money for quality.

“But if we had to airfreight that coffee, is that an outcome that we want? Probably not. There are a lot of things going on at once.”

Isabela adds: “To keep up with our responsibility to the environment, we recently launched the Tree-llion project, a commitment to plant three milllion trees by 2030. 

“This project will bring together the public and private sector, and the impact of the CO2 we sequester will be shared across the coffee supply chain to help produce a ‘net zero’ cup of coffee.”

coffee cherries drying

The challenges of producing carbon-negative coffee at scale

While it’s easy enough to talk about making sustainable changes to any coffee business, switching to carbon-neutral or carbon-negative coffee production is challenging.

Isabela explains that smaller businesses are generally able to adopt new sustainability practices more easily than larger companies. 

“It’s easier to improve quality and sustainability when you are small, but to do this on a large scale is really, really difficult,” she explains. “Coffee production in particular has other problems, too, because it is a monoculture; it’s not like growing soybeans, corn, or cotton, which you can rotate seasonally.

“Cultivating a product that you cannot rotate at a large scale makes it really difficult to integrate crops with forest land, or use other cultures [to absorb CO2], like avocado or mango trees.”

Driving high-level change at any large business, no matter the industry, is difficult. This makes it easy to understand why carbon credits are a useful solution.

But while carbon credits do technically reduce a business’ carbon footprint, it arguably does not represent a switch to inherently sustainable operations.

“We all have to improve,” Isabela says. “The research that we do at Daterra is about creating awareness and introducing a permanent culture [of sustainability] across the business. 

“At Daterra, this has focused on being aware of the chemicals we use, how much water we use, and so on. We’ve been doing this for a long time. As a result, we have produced bags of carbon-negative coffee which have a footprint of -40kg CO2eq. So it is possible.”

farm barn warehouse

Are things changing & is there demand?

The number of consumers switching to more environmentally responsible brands shows that there is support for long-term change. This means that producing, trading, and roasting sustainable coffee (carbon-neutral or carbon-negative) is becoming financially viable.

Henry says that at DRWakefield, the team have noticed customers pushing for sustainably-grown coffee. However, he also notes that many realise they need to take small steps to drive lasting change.

“I think people want to do better,” he says. “At the moment, because of what’s happened with the pandemic, they want to improve their supply chain, but it kind of depends on where you start. 

“I have one customer who buys conventional Brazilian Santos, but now he wants to buy Rainforest Alliance Brazilian Santos. He knows that he can’t charge too much, but he wants to improve things somehow.

“I think we’re definitely seeing more demand for better coffee, and things are better in terms of price, environmental responsibility, quality, all that kind of stuff. But I also think it’s quite hard to quantify that.”

Priscilla adds: “There are so many different parts of the carbon footprint assessment process… it’s something new, something that is evolving. 

“The more people join the market, the more secure, accurate, and correct data will become. You need to start somehow, and over the years [the process of measuring your emissions] will get better and more accurate.”

coffee sacks on pallet

Carbon-negative coffee remains a novel phenomenon in the sector, but for businesses that can take any kind of step towards being more environmentally responsible, it’s clear that the demand is there.

Ultimately, it’s easy to see that everybody across the coffee sector could be doing more to mitigate the impact of climate change. Producers can commit to more sustainable agricultural practices, and roasters can look to buy green coffee more responsibly. Meanwhile, cafés can brew with ethically-sourced coffee, and even home coffee consumers can keep an eye out for coffee which has been grown and sourced in an environmentally friendly way. 

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

Photo credits: Daterra

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