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The Coffee Carbon Project – Part 4
Mandi Journals-04
Picking coffee

The narrow dirt path became steeper the higher up we went. At 1990 meters above sea level, the air was thin, reducing the amount of oxygen we could pull into our lungs. The path was flanked with endless rows of coffee plants. Along one side, shade trees stood shoulder to shoulder creating what’s called a lindero in Spanish or live fence, denoting the boundary between property lines.

Upon reaching the top of the path, sweaty and out of breath, we were rewarded with an expansive view of the mountainside. A mosaic hue of greens cascaded down the slopes emanating from tree canopies, coffee plants, grasses and fields. As I gazed across the landscape, I felt grateful for a job that allows me to be outside and spend time in nature for my fieldwork.


“A year into this project, we now know the sources and sinks of emissions.”


This was our second round of fieldwork to figure out how to measure emissions on coffee farms in Jaén, Peru. A year into this project, we now know the sources and sinks of emissions. Our main challenge with this type of carbon accounting is determining how we quantify those emissions. For example, on farms in this area, after coffee is depulped, it is fermented in either a tank or in bags on the farms. Then the coffee is rinsed with water to clean the seed (bean) and remove the mucilage. This water, called agua miel in Spanish, contains mucilage remnants and has high levels of Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) which can contaminate water sources. Additionally, it releases emissions as the organic matter from the mucilage degrades.

Washing coffee

We need to know the quantity of this wastewater to measure the emissions. But how do you figure that out? People aren’t metering or measuring the water, they are just washing the coffee. We tried asking, how much water do you use? And received answers like, “I wash it until it’s clean.” “Until the water runs clear.” “Until it’s ready.” Fair enough. Instead, we measured the dimensions of the tanks and asked – how far up does the water go when you wash the coffee and how many times do you rinse it? This won’t be exact, but it will give us a good indication of the amount of wastewater to include in our emissions model.


“Yet, as an industry, when we seek to reduce emissions along our supply chain, we often point to the producers to do this for us… something is amiss here.”


Calculating industry-wide emissions is important. Though what struck me, as we walked through the coffee farms and chatted with producers at their houses, was what a low emissions lifestyle they led – how minimal their environmental impact was compared to mine. Most of us in consuming countries sit behind desks, often with two monitors, music playing, fans going, electricity always on. Single-use packaging, fast-fashion clothes, plastics are ubiquitous (although I do my best to be environmentally conscious). Yet, as an industry, when we seek to reduce emissions along our supply chain, we often point to the producers to do this for us… something is amiss here.

Shade coffee

Coffee farms, especially ones that incorporate shade trees, are part of the living ecosystem, of nature. Farms can provide habitat for wildlife, nutrients for soils, protection for waterways and soil erosion. The woody biomass of trees and coffee plants sequesters carbon – whether they are taking in more carbon (as in additionality) or have been holding carbon for decades. If these farms were to be razed and turned to pasture or development, all those ecosystem services would vanish, all that carbon would be released. This is something that we aren’t currently taking into account with emissions calculations and I’m afraid we are missing the bigger picture.

“This is something that we aren’t currently taking into account with emissions calculations and I’m afraid we are missing the bigger picture.”


But if we take a step back from the reporting, disclosures and declarations, are we focusing on what’s meaningful or what’s measurable? I’m a fan of measuring things. I love collecting and analysing data and interpreting what the numbers are telling us. But are we measuring the right things? Maybe we need to turn this conversation upside-down and look at it in a different way.
Reducing emissions throughout the supply chain is imperative. However, we are doing a disservice to our coffee producers by not looking at farms holistically and choosing to focus solely on annual emissions, putting the onus and risk on the producers to reduce those emissions.

Instead of asking producers to mitigate emissions for us, what if we rewarded coffee farmers for maintaining a healthy ecosystem on their lands? For growing coffee instead of having, say, a dairy farm? For growing coffee, rather than selling their land for development? For building and maintaining carbon stocks on their land, even if it is not new growth? Could more points be awarded for farms that incorporate more shade trees? We have the capacity to measure these things. Maybe that’s what we should be measuring.

Coffee drying

In terms of farm-level emissions, the main offender is inorganic fertilisers. There is no doubt that inorganic fertilisers have high emissions. We can’t ignore that, but we can’t ask for coffee to be grown without fertilisers either. It is not realistic or fair. What if instead we focused on the industries that produce them? Inorganic fertiliser production has high levels of emissions due to the process and energy that it takes to create inorganic nitrogen. Could we instead invest in producing low-emission inorganic fertilisers?


“We need to broaden our perspective on emissions and coffee.”


We need to broaden our perspective on emissions and coffee. We need first take a look at ourselves before drafting mitigation projects that request producers to change the way they farm to further reduce our emissions. I’m not suggesting that we don’t collaborate with producers on emission projects, but let’s not put the burden of reducing emissions throughout our supply chain solely on them. Coffee farmers should be rewarded for having good agricultural practices and maintaining healthy ecosystems.

The walk back down the narrow dirt pathway was easier than the ascent. The boughs of the coffee plants alongside the path were heavy with ripe cherry. Harvest would begin soon. Ideas started to formulate about how we could incorporate a more holistic approach to this emissions puzzle, and it felt like missing pieces were finally coming together. I made it to the bottom of the path, still sweaty, but I could breathe easier.