June 9, 2022

Addressing deforestation in coffee production


Sustainability continues to be a major focus across the coffee industry, specifically in coffee production. Among the many environmental issues in the coffee sector is deforestation.

There is a significant knowledge gap about deforestation in coffee production, which naturally leads to a number of misconceptions about when, where, and how much deforestation is driven by coffee production.

Recent data also suggests that deforestation could be more prominent in the coffee sector than previously believed. However, the same data also suggests that coffee production often isn’t the driving force at play. 

So, what are the main causes of deforestation in the coffee industry, and how do we manage them? To learn more, I spoke to several coffee professionals about how to measure and address the topic. Read on to find out what they said.

You may also like our article on carbon-neutral coffee production.

deforested landscape

What is deforestation?

In the simplest definition, deforestation is the removal of trees to increase land area for agricultural and commercial purposes. Extensive deforestation creates a number of environmental problems, as trees are habitats for many animal and insect species.  

Forests also prevent soil erosion and act as “carbon sinks”. Through photosynthesis, trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and recycle it into oxygen – helping to mitigate the effects of climate change.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, an estimated 420 million hectares of forest have been lost since 1990. However, the same report notes that rates of deforestation have decreased over the past 30 years.

It has been known for some time that deforestation may occur in coffee-growing regions, particularly in rainforests along the Bean Belt. However, without specific data that indicates where, when, and how deforestation is happening, it’s difficult for industry professionals to take steps to prevent it.

Deforestation can occur on coffee farms to make more room for coffee trees, but it can also happen on public or protected land nearby. It can also vary in severity across a number of factors, including the size of the area of trees that are cut down, the age of trees that are removed, and whether the trees are part of a protected ecosystem, such as a rainforest. 

It can also be difficult to attribute deforestation to a particular individual, group, or farm. Producers who grow many crops other than coffee may not be cutting down trees on their land, but they could be gathering firewood from nearby communal land – meaning it can be difficult to trace back the original source of deforestation.

It’s also important to note that cutting down trees can be a form of sustainable forestry in some cases, which leads to further misconceptions about deforestation. If farmers plant trees and then harvest them for wood, they might have the intention to replant the trees at a later date.

Justin Archer is the Head of Sustainability at Sucafina, a sustainable farm-to-roaster coffee trader.

“There’s no unified definition for deforestation on coffee-growing lands,” he explains. “At Sucafina, we’re currently working on a definition that monitors five different types of deforestation, based on severity, in our supply chain.

“It’s important that we start with a definition that we can build around. We know that our policies will have to be continuously updated as we gather more data and broaden our scope of the issue,” he adds.

Why does it matter?

A new bill proposed by the European Union (EU) would mandate that it must be proven that coffee and other imported commodities are deforestation-free. However, since there is little data on where and when deforestation is occurring, it is difficult for many supply chain actors to predict how this bill will affect them.

Ultimately, this means tracking and measuring deforestation is essential in creating a sustainable supply chain. 

Jay Kling is the Director of Coffee for Irving Farm New York

“Our goal as a roaster is to buy coffee that is as economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable as possible,” he says. “We always work towards making the coffee that we buy a fair business for the people who grow it.” 

woman watering coffee seedlings

Is it a problem in the coffee industry?

Ilya Byzov is a Quantitative Trader at Sucafina. He tells me that understanding the severity of deforestation in coffee production is difficult.

“We initially had a naïve view that there wasn’t much deforestation happening in the areas we source coffee from,” he says. “But the more we explored the issue, the more we learned that within the countries where we operate, there is a significant amount of deforestation.”

Justin adds: “Coffee isn’t necessarily the driver behind deforestation, but it’s grown on lands where deforestation is occurring.” 

However, even though deforestation is occurring in these regions, coffee is often not the main cause of this problem. Instead, deforestation actually occurs because of population growth. 

“Trees are being cut down to create more space for humans to live, as well as having more space to build farms to grow food,” Ilya explains.

Research carried out by Sucafina suggests that deforestation is frequent in countries where coffee is grown. Although it’s driven mostly by population growth and rising food demand, deforestation is an important factor that importers and roasters should consider when sourcing sustainable coffee.

Robin Sampson is the CEO of blockchain company Trade in Space. He explains how coffee companies can act to gather data about deforestation. 

“Companies should use this data to assess their supply chains and make sure that they’re comfortable with the places that they’re buying products from, including coffee.”

Despite this being a long-term process, it’s the first step towards mitigating the problem. 

“First, we need to investigate, then we need to address the root cause of deforestation,” Jay explains. “We can use the tools to measure our progress, before we can share the impact of our progress with consumers.”

deforested area

How can you measure deforestation? 

It is difficult to accurately measure levels of deforestation, especially on the ground. This is because it can happen at a slow rate and often takes place away from coffee farms, meaning it can be anywhere from tough to impossible to obtain accurate data.

To tackle this issue, Sucafina has partnered with other organisations to trial satellite technology that can monitor the extent of deforestation. Satellite technology companies, such as Trade in Space and Global Risk Assessment Services (GRAS), use polygon mapping (a method which can map irregularly-shaped plots of land) and satellite imagery to determine changes in tree cover over time. 

To help with this process, teams on the ground establish GPS coordinates for farms and plots of land. This data is then uploaded to create a geographical mapping system, overlaid with satellite imagery that tracks forest cover. Once data has been collected for several years, it is much easier to assess how forest cover changes over time – allowing deforestation to be more easily tracked.

Ana Cabezas is a GIS & Sustainability Expert at GRAS. 

“Satellite technology has a huge advantage of assessing large regions, even those that are difficult to access on the ground,” she explains. “These systems are capable of monitoring coffee production areas and detecting changes in land use.

“We use current and historical satellite images to identify land-use change, when it’s happening, and what kind of change has occurred,” she adds. 

Prior to the introduction of this technology, the only method of accurately mapping deforestation was to hire a private plane or helicopter to take photographs of the area – a method which is understandably inaccessible for many roasters and other companies interested in their impact on the wider supply chain..

Companies like GRAS and Trade in Space use artificial intelligence to create algorithms that can detect deforestation across large areas of land, without the need for any direct human insight. This low-impact model means that comparatively small companies are able to monitor deforestation on a much broader scale. 

Justin tells me: “Once we partnered with satellite tracking companies, we were able to get a bird’s eye view of deforestation from space. 

“This has given us a different perspective on the pervasiveness and consequences of deforestation in our supply chain,” he says. “Otherwise, we never would have known that there was deforestation happening in our supply chain.”

man watering coffee seedlings

How can the coffee sector mitigate deforestation?

Justin explains that in order to understand the full scale of deforestation in the coffee industry, data on deforestation must be evaluated across the entire supply chain. 

“It’s important for us to scope out the scale of the problem and understand how, if at all, we can engage with it,” he says. “We currently need to figure out how serious the problem is and who needs to take ownership.” 

Jay tells me that one of the potential solutions is to empower coffee-producing communities by paying higher prices and strengthening direct trade relationships.

“As coffee production becomes more profitable, it will be easier for producers to adopt restorative agricultural practices, develop their communities, and pay pickers more,” he explains.

Working closely with farmers to mitigate deforestation will be a long-term task, Ilya says. 

“If there is active deforestation happening at a farm level, producers are most likely deforesting their land for a specific need,” he explains. “If they are told what they can and can’t do with their own land, it’s a difficult proposition. 

“We have to work collaboratively with farmers to determine why they’re deforesting their land, and what other options or programmes could address their needs instead of deforestation,” he explains.

Ilya adds that reforestation projects could be a solution to addressing these issues.

“We also plan to work with farmers to reforest land with new seedlings,” he concludes.

coffee seedlings

Ultimately, technology can pave the way for professionals in the coffee industry to track deforestation across their supply chains. 

At the same time, these technologies raise new questions about how we can address deforestation on a local level, and how we can make sure that we do so in a way that supports producers and their communities. 

The solutions won’t be simple but they are pressing, especially with new laws mandating deforestation-free supply chains on the horizon.  

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on growing sustainability in the coffee supply chain.

Photo credits: Sucafina

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