I was reading the news the other day and came upon a really disturbing article in The Guardian about climate change and coffee. The gist is that in the coming decades climate change is going to make about half of the land which is currently suitable for growing coffee no longer viable for doing so. In some countries the majority of coffee growing land will be unsuitable to grow coffee by around 2050, impacting the livelihoods of an estimated 120 million people (including me and I’m assuming, you too!)
For us in the industry, we know that coffee is a finicky plant. It is not easy to grow and the producing coffee is made all the more difficult by drought, excess rain, unpredictable seasons and diseases, like roya. We know climate change is already having an impact, and it is only going to get more difficult in the coming years. Add that to unstable prices and low profit margins and you can see how coffee farming would feel like a precarious way of life. There are countless reports dedicated to this topic. This recent publication does a great job summarizing the science and the relationship between coffee and climate change.
As a Royal Coffee Trader, l I think about climate change in terms of coffee. As an Oakland resident, I think about climate change in terms of my garden, my water bill, and my energy use.
I am an enthusiastic gardener. The time I spend in the garden gives me a practical way to think about climate change, agriculture and what can be done to soften my impact. Through trial and error I have discovered how important it is to grow plants that are well suited to our local dry and foggy climate. By doing so, I can get a decent yield while limiting my water use. In addition to water preservation, composting is incredibly important as well. When I started my home garden it had some perennial shrubs and grass that died as soon as the rainy season was over. It looked nice at first, but it needed to be constantly watered. When I dug into the soil, I was greeted with a healthy mixture of dirt, broken glass, bits of roofing shingles and metal. Yum!
Luckily working at Royal, I have access to lots of lovely compostable materials, which have been fortifying my garden for years. Composting is like magic. When I put together the right mixture of materials, add a little water and occasionally stir, I can transform the decaying soil into nutritious loam that holds water and nutrients thus requiring less water and fertilizers. This has transformed my backyard into a garden that will grow herbs, vegetables, and fruit trees and attracts local birds, skunks, and squirrels.
But what does all this have to do with coffee and climate change?
Studies have shown that industrial agriculture is right behind fossil fuel production in CO2 and methane release. It’s safe to deduce that our current method of growing food is at least partially responsible for climate change. My personal goal is to minimize my own carbon footprint in as many ways I can think of. In my Oakland backyard, I can create a miniature food forest and small urban oasis supporting more plants and animals than it did before. As an added bonus, I can provide some extra fresh fruits and veggies limiting my dependence on the global food system. This choice and lifestyle has a small impact, but it is better than nothing.
What if everyone in Oakland composted their organic waste, grew some produce, and shared them with their community? The bigger question of course is what happens when the human population is growing and we can no longer depend on industrial agriculture to save us?
It turns out that the coffeelands has some answers. Many small coffee farmers are engaging in more sustainable food systems by necessity. These practices, when done properly, can sequester carbon while producing higher yields than their industrial counterparts.
One can look no further than the “forest gardens” of Indonesia, a common practice dating thousands of years into the past. Deforestation and loss of biodiversity has only recently become an issue for Indonesia in the last hundred years or so, when timber exploitation and industrial agriculture systems started to replace the small scale ways of growing food and harvesting materials from the forest.
Growing coffee, cacao, livestock, fruits, and vegetables together in intercropped systems instead of in monocultures can not only make coffee farmers more resilient to climate change, but also sequester carbon in the soil and biomass. This has the power to effectively take carbon-dioxide out of the atmosphere and hold it in the soil and trees. Right now most coffee (and most food) is not produced this way. However, Royal, and very likely you by association, have been buying from farmers and cooperatives who have either always produced coffee this way, or who are working on moving their production back to this model.
Like many problems worth solving, there is no one singular answer. Farmers should use the crops that grow best in their local ecosystem. Common success stories shared by both home gardeners and farmers around the world include simple techniques like opting for native plants and slowly adding crops and livestock according to the needs of the community. In my view, supporting farmers who choose to make coffee farming more biodiverse, equitable, and resilient becomes an easy decision. The question is, how can we invest in more of them?