August 25, 2022

Exploring regenerative agriculture in coffee production


There’s no arguing that the demand for “sustainable coffee” is at an all-time high. Now more than ever, brands and consumers alike realise the importance of growing, buying, and drinking coffee that is both socially and environmentally sustainable.

There are a number of complex reasons driving this focus. However, one of the most important for environmentally responsible coffee is the ever-growing threat of climate change, and the impact it has on the coffee sector. 

As such, when we talk about environmental coffee production, focus often turns to how we can mitigate the impact of climate change, through concepts such as agroforestry, reviving natural ecosystems, and managing replenishing soil health on coffee farms. Generally speaking, these practices can be referred to as regenerative agriculture.

So what do we mean when we talk about regenerative agriculture in coffee farming? To learn more, I spoke with four coffee sustainability experts. Read on to find out what they had to say.

You may also like our article on environmentally sustainable coffee production & profitability.

A farmer manages coffee seedlings in the Kabondo nursery in Rachuonyo South, Kenya.

What is regenerative agriculture?

Ken Giller is a Professor of Plant Production Systems at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

“The term ‘regenerative agriculture’ was first coined by the Rodale Institute in the 1980s, who were focusing on organic farming,” he tells me. “Its definition was holistic – considering factors such as nutrient cycles and soil health.”

However, despite the fact that these key practices were established and clarified some decades ago, there is still no commonly-accepted definition of regenerative agriculture.

“There seems to be very little agreement as to what regenerative practices actually are,” Ken says.

Rejane Souza is the Vice President of Crop Knowledge and Agronomy at Yara. She explains the general principle behind regenerative agriculture in coffee production.

“It’s about preparing coffee farmers to focus on quality [and climate-resiliency],” she tells me.

Barbara Novak is the Global Technical Sales Manager of Food Chain Initiatives at Yara

“At Yara, we have identified regenerative agriculture as climate, soil health, resource efficiency, biodiversity, and producer prosperity,” she says.

Ultimately, regenerative agriculture focuses on balancing conservation and environmental sustainability alongside the commercial production of crops like coffee.

Joao Moraes is the Director of Global Accounts for Yara

“Regenerative agriculture has to be outcome-based, in terms of providing farmers with better livelihoods through educating them on best production practices,” he says. “We approach this through a certain number of factors, including soil health and fertility, water retention, levels of respiration in the soil, and levels of biodiversity.”

Hand of a farmer sorting coffee beans using regenerative agriculture

Increasing profitability and sustainability

While commercial farming models have historically focused on yield and quality, regenerative agriculture leans towards more natural methods of circular crop production.

“Holistically, regenerative agriculture focuses on creating harmony between the three pillars of sustainability: economic, environmental, and social,” Barbara explains. “Ultimately, this means both coffee quality and yields can improve, while carbon footprint falls and land use efficiency rises.

“There is a ‘cause and effect’ relationship between these three pillars, which is likely to also positively impact farmers’ profitability,” she adds. “For instance, reducing emissions and applying fertilisers that result in balanced nutrition, as well as the right levels of nitrogen in the soil, will also influence yield accordingly.”

Optimal nitrogen levels in soil can also affect coffee quality. Research from Yara found that both nitrogen-deficient and overfertilised coffee plants ended up having a lower cup score. 

“Ultimately, it [is a technique] and a change in mindset [about farming] that can help to reduce the carbon footprint of coffee production,” Joao explains. “It also ensures the supply chain is more transparent and sets a baseline goal for future sustainable coffee production.

“Increasing farmers’ resilience to climate change through regenerative agriculture only serves to safeguard coffee yields and quality,” he adds. “This is critical to secure the financial stability of coffee producers.”

However, Ken points out that implementing regenerative agricultural practices is not always straightforward.

“It can be difficult to understand how regenerative agriculture can affect coffee productivity and quality,” Ken explains. “Firstly, you need to understand more about the current conditions that you’re trying to improve.

“For instance, in certain African countries, reducing certain farming inputs [to be more sustainable can be damaging to farmers],” he adds. “If you want to improve productivity, you will need to use more inputs, [such as fertilisers].”

A young man pours fertilizer at the base of young coffee plants on a coffee farm in rural Colombia.

Crop nutrition, fertilisers & regenerative agriculture

In 2020, the European Commission reported that organic farming in Europe covered some 14.7 million hectares of agricultural land – and this number is set to increase over the coming years. 

Considering the rise in organic farming, it’s important to ask what the difference between this and regenerative agriculture is.

Barbara explains that generally speaking, organic coffee farming is far less flexible.

“As there are no industry standards on using fertilisers in regenerative agriculture, mineral fertilisers are commonly used to improve coffee yields and soil fertility,” she says.

She adds that regenerative agriculture is more outcome-focused; accounting for the socioeconomic livelihoods of producers and the long-term capacity of each farm. Alongside this, there is also a significant emphasis on environmental sustainability.

“Unlike organic agriculture, which is defined by a set of standards and practices, regenerative agriculture takes a different approach by considering the outcomes, such as improvements in soil health, nutrient efficiency, and carbon footprint,” she says.

“Fertilisers are generally readily available and accessible in most coffee-growing countries,” Joao tells me. “However, they are often underused or misused.”

When applied incorrectly, fertilisers can be ineffective, potentially causing yields or quality to fall. He also notes that misapplication can also carry an environmental impact, both in terms of immediate soil health and the carbon footprint of any wasted agricultural inputs.

Joao adds that maximising nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) is also important for regenerative agriculture. NUE is a measure of how effective nitrogen inputs are where soil is concerned, and maximising it means farmers aren’t wasting or overapplying it – and thereby improving soil health in the long term.

“Producers should apply fertilisers in a balanced way, considering four steps in the process: the amount and timing of the fertiliser application needs to be correct, as well as the source and the place in which it is applied,” Barbara explains. “These four factors will impact coffee quality, which can in turn help farmers access more premium markets. It’s an opportunity for them to thrive.”

In addition to this, there are some other considerations to factor in when using fertilisers in the wider context of regenerative coffee farming.

Rejane explains that using fertilisers can help improve coffee plants’ yield and land efficiency. 

“Properly applied fertilisers can also increase crop resilience – well-nourished coffee plants are more resilient to environmental stressors, such as heat, drought, and diseases,” she says. “This also potentially means a gradual move towards increasing carbon sequestration, improving yields per hectare, and better use of resources.”

This can be especially effective when we consider the impact of climate change – which is increasingly forcing coffee farmers in affected areas to climb higher in search of suitable temperatures, switch to more resilient varieties, or even abandon coffee production altogether.

“In some cases in coffee production that uses fertilisers, more balanced crop nutrition programmes can result in less fertiliser application per hectare, but applying these smaller amounts in the correct way to improve yield and quality,” Barbara says. “This means knowledge and expertise are essential – even more so when using fertilisers in regenerative agriculture.”

Female worker sorting coffee beans at the Finca Selva Negra coffee plantation near Matagalpa, Nicaragua

How can we scale regenerative agriculture in coffee farming?

In many cases, there is a clear concern with many farming models which focus outright on sustainability: scalability.

There is an argument that while they are more accessible for profitable medium and large farms, they are less accessible for smallholders, for whom profitability is an issue of subsistence and survival. 

As farmers are the ones who generally end up paying for any major switch in farming methods, this is an important point and a major barrier to wider uptake.

Smaller, more remote coffee-growing communities may also have limited access to support and infrastructure.

“Regenerative agriculture is often initially more costly than more conventional commercial coffee farming practices,” Barbara acknowledges. “Farmers generally bear the brunt of these additional costs, while more value is generated down the supply chain.

“Essentially, regenerative agricultural practices create more value for coffee companies as they help brands to achieve some of their sustainable goals further down the supply chain,” she adds.

As Barbara explains, emphasising social responsibility initiatives is becoming a growing trend for coffee brands. This can mean there is a certain level of pressure for producers to adhere to sustainable practices, or face being “left behind” – which ultimately means reduced market access.

“For this reason, it’s fundamental that companies develop incentive programmes to support farmers in transitioning to regenerative agricultural practices, as well as monitoring the outcomes,” she says.

“The transition to regenerative agriculture will require new financing models and digital tools to advise producers on carrying out new farm practices, as well as helping to monitor outcomes,” she adds. “Yara is actively working with coffee supply chain actors to develop new business models to create new opportunities for coffee farmers, as well as digital tools to measure soil health, coffee yields, land use efficiency, and carbon footprint.”

Moreover, Ken points out that scalability is not a blanket issue. He notes that how feasible regenerative agriculture is will depend on a number of factors which will vary heavily from farm to farm. 

“Integrating more shade trees can be beneficial, but this ultimately depends on the location of the farm,” Ken says. “Nitrogen-fixing trees can help support coffee production by providing better soil cover, but farmers need to be careful that these trees don’t compete with coffee plants for water during drier seasons.”

Ultimately, Barbara believes that regenerative coffee farming is possible for many farmers.

“Any producer can adopt regenerative agricultural practices,” Barbara says. “Considering the impact that large-scale farming has on the environment, we all have a responsibility to encourage it.

“However, to ensure that regenerative agriculture is profitable for the farmer, there needs to be a collaborative approach so that the additional costs can be evenly distributed,” she adds.

Rejane, meanwhile, emphasises that this focus on sustainability can end up being a unique selling point. She explains that even though there is pressure for producers to “keep up” with a trend like this, it can actually make them more profitable and competitive in the long term.

“Consumers are demanding more sustainable coffee, so regenerative agriculture can help farmers to ensure that they remain competitive in the international coffee market,” Rejane tells me. “Furthermore, adopting these practices helps producers to prepare for any potential regulation changes that may come for certifications in the future.

“In order for regenerative agriculture to succeed, a step-by-step approach is necessary to allow farmers to make changes,” she concludes.

Farmer holds coffee cherries at the Gashonga coffee cooperative in the Lake Kivu region of Rwanda

It’s clear that regenerative agriculture has its benefits for coffee farmers who are looking to drive up quality and yields in a sustainable, circular way that improves the local ecosystem and manages soil health. 

While scalability and affordability will be a barrier for smaller farmers, if support and initiatives do emerge, producers will increasingly be empowered to implement this and other similar sustainable techniques on their farm. 

Furthermore, with the environment higher on the agenda for consumers than ever before, it’s clear that the market for sustainable coffee will only continue to grow. 

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on exploring quality, profitability & crop nutrition for coffee farmers.

Perfect Daily Grind

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

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