The past five months have whirled by in a coffee haze. We have broken through the formalities of introductions and cursory knowledge of the subject and are now trudging knee deep into the weeds of our carbon project. We’ve done our literature review, conducted interviews with staff at Falcon to better understand the business and supply chain and brainstormed with academics to make sure that we are investigating all angles of carbon emissions and mitigation. And now, we are preparing for fieldwork in Peru.
It feels like ages since I have done fieldwork. My last field research project was a pollinator study on a coffee farm in southern Costa Rica. Arabica coffee does not need bees for the coffee plant to fruit, it is self-pollinating, but if the flowers are pollinated by bees, the farm can produce 30-50% more coffee. To study bees in coffee farms, you need coffee flowers…for the coffee flowers to bloom, you need rain…and that year, there was a drought in the region of our study site. My field team and I were stuck in holding pattern, examining the flower buds on the coffee branches every day, but knowing they would not open until it rained. We wearily crossed the days off the calendar, watching the X’s get closer and closer to our scheduled departure date, hoping that the clouds would break, and the rain would fall. Eventually, the rains came, the coffee flowers bloomed, the bees swarmed to gather pollen from the flowers, and my research team and I were able to complete our study. Droughts like these are occurring more frequently and are symptoms of the climate crisis.
Coffee growing regions around the world are experiencing the impacts of the climate crisis. We are seeing changes in weather patterns with droughts, frosts, and delayed rains. There have also been problems with pest species such as the coffee berry borer beetle invading new areas and now able to survive at higher altitudes, where they were never seen before.
Easy solutions do not exist for curbing climate change, but it feels like we have hit the point of no return. The world recognises that human contributions to the crisis can no longer be ignored. Companies worldwide are declaring emission goals – “carbon neutral by 2030”, “carbon negative by 2050”, “climate-friendly coffee”.
But how do we substantiate these claims and ensure that they aren’t just words buzzing across the page for the benefit of investors and environmentally-conscious clients?
Science is always the answer. Ok, well, maybe not always (admittedly, as an ecologist I may be a bit biased). But in this case, it is true, it does come in handy.
If we want to reduce our emissions, we first need to know what they are and where they come from. For coffee, we need to understand where greenhouse gases (GHGs) are emitted throughout our supply chain. The coffee supply chain is complex, with tropical origin countries that export the majority of their coffees to import countries, who do not have the appropriate environmental conditions to grow coffee. This makes coffee a truly global commodity which adds to challenges of tracing and measuring environmental impacts.
Emissions can be measured through a systematic method called a life cycle assessment (LCA) which calculates the environmental impact of a product or service throughout its lifecycle. Carbon footprints are an example of an LCA. I’m sure you’ve seen online carbon footprint calculators where you put in a few numbers and the program spits out a result representing how much GHG you are responsible for emitting, usually based on your lifestyle and taking into account things like how you get to work (cycling and public transportation are the best), how many flights you take per year (the less the better), what type of diet you have (reduced meat and dairy consumption wins the most points here)… you get the idea. The result of carbon footprint calculators is obviously a very round, estimated number with lots of caveats, assumptions, and small print but the structure and the model are (hopefully) based on an array of reputable, scientific studies.
The Carbon KTP is very similar to these carbon footprint calculators but instead of measuring personal footprints, we want to measure coffee carbon footprints. What makes this challenging (and fun) is that there is no easy way to do this. There aren’t packaged calculators to measure the carbon footprint for coffee because, as an industry, we don’t have a lot of info on this yet.
The coffee supply chain looks like this (in a simplified view):
Some emissions throughout the supply chain are easier to calculate than others. Transportation from origin country to import country is pretty straightforward. Energy use in the offices and warehouses is calculated from utility bills. Farm-level emissions are more complicated. Coffee farming is not a one size fits all operation.
From our literature search of previous scientific studies, we know that a few main areas contribute to the majority of greenhouse gases at the farm level. A big source of emission is fertilisers. Nitrogen, the main ingredient in fertilisers, is over 200 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon. Interestingly, studies show that for on farm emissions, it doesn’t necessarily matter if the fertiliser is organic or inorganic. It is the amount that is used and the frequency with which it is applied to the farm.
Then on the opposite end of the balance sheet, coffee farms can also be sinks for emissions, taking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere – in some cases, to the extent the farm is carbon negative. Biomass, such as trees, sequesters or stores carbon – meaning that a shade coffee farm will have a lower carbon footprint than a sun coffee farm, assuming all other factors (i.e. size, yield, fertiliser use, vegetation and residue management) are equal.
In our upcoming trip to Peru, fertiliser use and vegetation management on coffee farms are two of the items we’ll be assessing. We will also be brainstorming ideas for how to reduce emissions. It’s important to note that many coffee farms are already managed in an environmentally-friendly way, whether by intention or custom or both, which coincides with lower carbon emissions. Measuring the carbon footprint is a way to quantify that and support those farms. It can also provide information for farms to see where they stack up and could be an incentive to be more environmentally friendly.
Another important thing to remember is that coffee is an agricultural crop. Coffee farms are living ecosystems. Coffee is not produced in a factory or laboratory (yet) – so you can’t just twist a dial half a degree or add 5 mL of solution A to the beaker and have a new and improved, carbon neutral crop. In addition to focusing on health of the plants, farmers also have to contend with the aforementioned pests and diseases that wipe out crops (no crop = no cherry = no income), as well as heavy rains and drought. So asking a coffee farmer to lay off of the nitrogen fertiliser to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to balance your emissions sheet (and not be able to guarantee that their crop, yields, and income won’t suffer)… is not a small request. We need to look for win-win solutions and incentives that work for everyone along the supply chain.
As I’m gearing up for fieldwork in a few months’ time, I’m starting to get excited about little things: a backpack full of field equipment, datasheets, and peanut and jelly sandwiches for lunch in the coffee farm. But mainly I’m looking forward to what we will find out from the producers we work with in Peru: how much fertiliser do they use? Do they have shade trees on the farm? What is their opinion of this carbon neutral coffee talk? What can we do to work together to support their farm and reduce emissions? I have a few more agenda items to check off my list before flying out, and I need to dust off my hiking boots and field pants, but I’ll be ready with my rusty Spanish and notebook in hand.