November 29, 2021

Environmentally sustainable coffee production & profitability


In today’s coffee sector, the word “sustainable” is being used with increasing frequency. More than ever, brands and businesses are realising the social, economic, and environmental impact of coffee production.

Part of the reason that sustainability is becoming more of a focus is the growing discussion around climate change. In the coffee industry, we’ve already seen reports that climate change is threatening the amount of land used to grow coffee and forcing farmers to “climb higher” in search of optimal arabica growing temperatures.

For coffee producers, this is understandably a major concern. But the focus on sustainability often starts at origin, meaning that there is more pressure than ever on farmers to grow sustainable coffee. This also represents a cost in many cases – meaning it can affect farm profitability.

To learn more about environmentally sustainable coffee production and its relationship with profitability, I spoke with two people at Yara and a researcher from the University of Lavras (UFLA). Read on to find out what they told me.

You might also like our article on quality, profitability & crop nutrition for coffee farmers.

inspecting coffee cherries

Environmental sustainability & coffee production

Dr Katharina Plassmann is a Senior Scientist at Yara. “The definition of sustainability covers its environmental, social, and economic aspects,” she says. “So, in order to achieve true sustainability, you need to address all of these holistically.

“However, fundamentally, our economy depends on nature,” she adds. “So, a healthy economy is not possible without a healthy environment – certainly not in the long run.”

In coffee production, we’ve seen this take shape in a number of ways. However, often, it starts with producers, farms, and other organisations calculating their carbon emissions using something called a carbon footprint.

A business or organisation’s carbon footprint is their total amount of CO2 emissions balanced against whatever CO2 they absorb through any number of means.

Thais Regina de Souza is a Senior Researcher focused on soil fertility, plant nutrition, and drainage at Yara. 

“Organisations need to act and contribute to balanced socioeconomic and environmental stability,” she says. “This means maintaining farmers’ quality of life, maximising social wellbeing, and improving environmental sustainability.”

coffee seedling

Minimising the carbon footprint of coffee production

So, now we know that it’s important to minimise the carbon footprint of coffee, how do we do so?

Firstly, it’s important to recognise that while the pressure is on coffee farmers around the world to be more sustainable, the rest of the industry has a responsibility to do so, as well. The coffee sector isn’t just about agriculture; the supply chain is complex and long, with actors who can all focus on being more sustainable.

With that in mind, there are certainly actions that coffee producers can take. Farmers use energy and emit CO2 when they plant, fertilise, harvest, and ship their coffee.

Fortunately, as coffee plants are perennial, they photosynthesise throughout the year, meaning that they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and release oxygen. They also don’t need to be replanted after each harvest (such as other crops, like soy, corn, or rice). This helps to balance the footprint of coffee production; however, it isn’t always enough.

Some producers grow their coffee among shade trees in a system known as agroforestry, which has benefits both for coffee quality and the environmental impact of the farm. But what else can coffee farmers do?

Professor Douglas Guelfi is an agronomic researcher at UFLA. He tells me about the concept of a circular economy, which is where waste and byproducts are taken and reused in an effort to improve environmental sustainability.

“These byproducts mainly come from processing, such as coffee husk and wastewater,” he says. “Many farmers try to incorporate this into some other process within the farm, or use it externally.”

For example, coffee husk can be converted into a biofuel, while wastewater can be treated at a facility and reused.

“We think about having a production system and fertilisation strategy that doesn’t lose as many nutrients through the system,” Douglas says. “This is efficiency, and ultimately, being more efficient with resources improves sustainability.”

coffee cherries

Disposing of byproducts sustainably

One of the first things farms can do to minimise their carbon footprint is look for circular ways to reuse their waste.

For example, let’s look at coffee wastewater – a byproduct of the production process. It is generated when cherries are washed and sorted, as well as during washed processing.

After this, the wastewater contains high levels of potassium, and can damage the environment if not properly disposed of. 

Douglas says: “There are two solutions for this that I’ve seen. The first is to use the residual water as a high-potassium fertiliser for crops around the wet mill.”

To do so, producers simply have to fertilise (or fertigate) with this water, being careful to use volumes that won’t damage their crop.

Another way, according to him, is using the wastewater to support compost production. In both cases, however, the water is reintroduced to the environment, which limits waste and helps the producer be more sustainable.

Correct fertiliser application

Although this might not seem like a major issue, fertiliser misuse actually has a huge economic and environmental impact, especially in the case of overapplication.

“The excess nutrients represent waste, as do all the greenhouse gas emissions related to production,” Katharina says. “You have to consider the emissions it takes to transport the fertiliser from the factory to the farm, which are not linked to any kind of yield or quality improvements if the fertiliser is misapplied.

“Cutting this excess should not reduce yields, but will improve the environmental performance of a farm.”

Katharina also notes the importance of soil health management. Healthy soil with an appropriate nutrition programme will be more sustainable in the long term, and improving fertiliser management in this regard can help a farm monitor and reduce its carbon footprint.

“Improving fertiliser application to achieve higher nutrient efficiency reduces the product’s carbon footprint because fewer nutrients are used per unit of harvested yield,” she explains. “If fertiliser application rates are reduced on a farm, this will reduce the total greenhouse gas emissions from that farm.”

This is why it is important to implement tools that support farmers to apply at the right rate and using the right source. Thais tells me how Yara has implemented several tools to support coffee producers in this area.

“Our technical teams provide nutritional recommendations based on scientific results from long-term trials,” she says. “In addition, our increasing focus on biostimulants, fertigation, integrated farming systems, and digital tools further expand our offering of regenerative solutions.”

Douglas also notes that using the right fertiliser is just as important as applying it correctly, especially when it comes to nitrogen fertilisers.

“The least efficient conventional fertiliser for coffee would be urea,” he says. “We also know that efficiency is closely linked to sustainability, because these fertilisers all have a carbon footprint.” 

If applied incorrectly, as much as 40% of the nitrogen applied to soil through urea can be volatised into gas and effectively “lost”. 

Choosing the right fertiliser is also important for coffee farmers. For example, nitrates are the most efficient form of nitrogen fertiliser, which means they represent the least loss, and therefore have the least environmental impact.


Using “cleaner” fertiliser

Alongside applying fertiliser correctly, Thais tells me that producers can also use fertilisers which simply have a lower carbon footprint. She says that Yara offers nitrate fertiliser solutions, which are far more efficient. By using these, producers minimise the carbon footprint of their fertiliser use, and therefore their farm.

She also notes that their factories are taking two specific actions to minimise the environmental footprint of their agricultural inputs.

The first is the use of catalysts in their factories’ chimneys. According to her, by 2023, they should be able to reduce the emission of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, “by around 90% when compared to the traditional production process”.

Another example is the production of green ammonia. She tells me that, unlike the traditional process, which uses hydrogen from natural gas to produce ammonia, their new technology is different. 

“It stops using hydrogen from natural gas and instead start extracting it from water,” Thais explains. “The energy used to extract it through hydrolysis comes from natural sources, such as solar and wind energy.

“This new technology, in addition to using clean energy in the production process, no longer uses natural gas, which is a fossil fuel.”

While using sustainable agricultural inputs, applying them correctly, and disposing of byproducts are three examples of how coffee production can be more environmentally sustainable, there are plenty of techniques producers can use.

Focusing on carbon sequestration through agroforestry, working with agronomists to maximise soil health, and integrated landscape management are all examples of other techniques that producers can use to grow more sustainable coffee.

yara employee

Is sustainable coffee more profitable for producers?

While environmentally-friendly production methods do often represent an additional effort (and generally an additional cost) for coffee producers, sustainable coffees are increasingly commanding a higher price. 

If producers sell environmentally-friendly and ethical coffee beans at a higher price, they may be able to counteract and exceed the higher cost of production, thereby improving profitability.

This is possible because of the rapid growth of sustainable consumption trends among consumers. In 2018 alone, consumers spent over US $128 billion on sustainable fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), while more than 77% of consumers said in 2020 that sustainability and environmental responsibility were “moderately important” or “very important” to them.

Katharina says: “Coffee is one commodity where voluntary sustainability initiatives have got a significant market share.

“Major companies have commitments to source a certain percentage of their coffee from sustainable sources, and coffee compliant with voluntary sustainability standards is growing at a faster rate than commercial coffee.”

Thais also tells me about Yara’s Agoro Carbon Alliance initiative. This, she says, was designed with the aim of reducing the carbon footprint of agriculture on a global scale, and adding more value for farmers. 

She says: “By putting farmers at the centre of our strategy, we will continue encouraging and empowering producers to change their practices while connecting them to a growing number of companies looking for ways to meet their climate commitments. 

“By adopting climate-smart agricultural management practices, producers can create agricultural carbon credits, thereby helping to lower the carbon footprint of the food chain.”

The project aims to develop two main solutions for companies and consumers. Firstly, it seeks to create agricultural carbon credits for brands looking to reduce their carbon footprint. Secondly, it will certify low-carbon crops across the supply chain, facilitating better traceability and supporting producers to get a better price for them. 

“Imagine going to the supermarket and deciding to buy a product based on the food’s carbon footprint,” Thais says. “In this case, the consumer has the possibility to directly contribute to the development of a more sustainable world.”

african coffee producer

Being sustainable is not simple and it is not easy. For consumers, it means changing buying habits and minimising waste; for coffee farmers, it can represent an inflated cost of production with no guarantee of higher returns. The reduction of emissions is a challenge for every actor in every food production value chain – including consumers.

However, by adopting greener practices on the farm, producers can improve their chances of appealing to the rapidly-growing segment of consumers who look to buy sustainable coffee. In turn, this can translate into a higher price for their crop, supporting them to invest in their farm and improve their quality of life.

Enjoyed this? Then try our article exploring yield, crop nutrition, and profitability for coffee farmers.

Photo credits: Yara, NKG Bloom

Please note: Yara is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

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