The coffee industry is one of many agricultural fields that is experiencing the detrimental effects of climate change.
Notably, it is coffee farmers who are suffering the most, as they lack the finances and equipment needed to mitigate the impact of global warming. Increases in global temperatures and changes in rainfall can influence coffee yields and drastically affect productivity and the quality of crops.
Global warming is essentially driven by the emission of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide. To mitigate the effects of climate change, it is fundamental to reduce the production of these gases.
It is also important to highlight how the coffee industry is contributing to greenhouse emissions and what it is doing to become carbon neutral. One project undertaken by the industry is the development of “low carbon” coffee varieties that reduce the carbon dioxide equivalent (Co2e) footprint of the green beans.
To find out more about how low carbon coffee varieties could help combat climate change, I spoke with corporate sustainability professional Allie Stauss.
What is the carbon footprint of the coffee industry?
Through every stage of the journey, from seed to cup, coffee emits carbon into the atmosphere to some degree.
Notably, the average cup of coffee is responsible for between 0.4kg and 0.55kg of carbon dioxide (CO2).
“Much of the carbon emissions within the coffee industry are happening at the farm and processing level,” says Allie, who is also a certified supply chain analyst. A study carried out by the Natural Resources Institute Finland (LUKE) found coffee farming and processing makes up 68% of a coffee’s climate impact.
This was compared to 11% for brewing and less than 4% for transportation, roasting, and packaging combined.
Fertilisers, pesticides, fuel, and lime all contribute to the high levels of CO2 emissions involved in production.
Additionally, in countries such as Honduras and Nicaragua, land use changes, which involves either the expansion or relocation of a coffee farm. This may contribute to as much as 60-70% of the total carbon footprint.
Conventional coffee production consumes substantial amounts of energy, water, and land, particularly due to the long, complex supply chain required to produce and transport the coffee bean to market.
According to a study by UCL, the carbon footprints estimated for conventional coffee production in Brazil and Vietnam were 11.56 and 12.99 kg CO2e kg–1 green coffee, respectively, from farm level to a storage location in Bristol, UK.
Traditionally, coffee was exported via cargo ship, but in pursuit of a fresher product, more roasters are choosing to export it via air transport. According to a 2021 Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of the carbon footprint of coffee, this switch increases coffee’s footprint by as much as 70%.
What are “low carbon” coffee varieties?
In December 2019, the European Commission set out its plans to make Europe an economy with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
As a result, many coffee businesses have strived to reduce their carbon emissions and become carbon neutral. One such business is Nestlé, whose plant scientists have developed a generation of “low carbon” coffee varieties.
Compared to standard varieties, the two new robusta varieties supposedly deliver up to 50% more yields per tree.
Additionally, these plants use the same amount of land, fertiliser, and energy, this results in up to 30% reduction in the CO2e footprint of the beans.
Research shows green coffee accounts for between 40% and 80% of the CO2e emissions of a cup of coffee. Therefore, this breakthrough could significantly reduce the carbon footprint associated with coffee consumption.
Furthermore, these new coffee varieties are more resistant to coffee leaf rust – a devastating disease that infects and strips coffee trees, dramatically reducing crop yields.
As this variety is disease resistant, farmers are able to use fewer pesticides and fertilisers, which may increase the quality of the crop.
More so, Nestlé claims to have developed a drought-resistant coffee variety that delivers up to 50% higher yields per plant, even if it is under moderate to severe water stress.
The aim of these varieties is to support the continuation of coffee cultivation in regions severely affected by climate change.
One of the low carbon robusta varieties has been successfully trialled and is currently being grown by farmers in Central America. The drought-resistant coffee variety is being trialled in fiends across Central Africa.
How could low carbon coffee varieties benefit producers & roasters?
The development of low carbon coffee varieties opens up numerous opportunities for both producers and roasters.
“It’s a win-win process,” Allies explains. “Implementing different practices on the field, better agronomic practices, and efficient managerial practices at a cooperative level of any type of governance practices ends up creating additional revenue avenues.”
From a production perspective, low carbon varieties imply a decrease in costs, as they require less water and fertiliser, and fewer pesticides. These elements often represent much of the production costs for coffee farmers.
Also, less land is required, which means farmers could choose to increase their coffee production, or use the land to farm other products to increase their revenue.
Roasters may also benefit from sourcing and offering low carbon coffees. A growing number of consumers are changing their purchasing and consumption habits in order to reduce their environmental impact.
A 2020 study by Delloitte found 62% of consumers feel strongly about tackling air pollution, while reducing carbon emissions was a near-universal priority.
Additionally, a 2020 report found 67% of consumers would support the introduction of carbon labelling on products.
Developing a collaborative relationship between coffee farmers and roasters could lead to a high-quality product with a reduced carbon footprint, which appeals to an ever-increasing market.
Additionally, roasters can use their coffee bags to help educate customers about the impact of climate change at origin. This way, customers will understand the importance of supporting ethical and conscientious roasters.
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