By Britta Wyss-Bisang, Standards Director at UTZ Certified
Nowadays, we all know that climate change is a serious problem. World leaders are waking up to this reality, with many of them gathering at the UN Climate Change Summit in New York. Temperatures are rising, ice caps are melting and wildlife is at risk. But did you know that climate change could also have a major impact on the price and quality of your daily cup of coffee?
Coffee plants need very specific conditions to thrive. The combination of altitude, temperature, rainfall and soils must be just right. That’s why countries like Colombia, Kenya and Vietnam have such thriving coffee industries. Unfortunately, climate change is a growing concern for coffee farmers, especially smallholder farmers in these regions.
Increasing temperatures are causing streams to dry up. This means dryer soil, less flowers on coffee plants due to water stress, and an increased likelihood for pests and diseases. Weather patterns are becoming less predictable, with extended droughts followed by erratic or destructive rains and strong winds. This often leads to coffee branches breaking off, or leaves and coffee cherries falling off the plants, as well as landslides and soil erosion.
All of this means that production costs for farmers go up while the quantity and quality, and so the coffee price at the farm gate, goes down. That’s bad news for farmers, and bad news for everyone who enjoys a good cup of coffee.
So what can be done? There are two sides to tackling climate change in the coffee sector, and we’re working with our partners to invest heavily in both.
First, for individual farmers, it’s vital that they find ways to adapt their farming practices to adjust to the changing climate. For example, they can use other crops like avocado and bananas to shade and protect the coffee plants against heat stress, or introduce irrigation methods that make sure that the plants get the water they need at the right time. Training on these methods is a vital part of the UTZ program, and it’s making a real difference to farmers.
In particular, in Vietnam we are in the middle of the Coffee Climate Care (C3) project in partnership with the DE Foundation, supported by Deutsche Investitions- und Entwicklungsgesellschaft (DEG). In this project we are working with farmers to find ways of defining the risks from the changing climate, and to implement adaptation measures to strengthen coffee production systems.
Secondly, we have to recognize that agriculture does make a significant contribution to causing climate change in the first place through, for example, the release of greenhouse gas emissions via waste water, production and application of chemical fertilizers, and deforestation. Therefore UTZ Certified also takes measures to mitigate these emissions.
For example, producing and processing high quality Arabica coffee results in a huge amount of waste water. If this waste water is released without treatment, it pollutes local water sources and soil, and contributes significantly to climate change through the release of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas. We’ve just come to the end of a four year project in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala where we tested a new technology that turns this coffee waste water into biogas that can be used by local people, and we’ve seen some great results. Not only does this technology prevent the damage caused by the waste water itself, but it also saves trees that would otherwise have been cut down for fuel.
Unfortunately, climate change is a reality, and tackling it on a large scale will require huge joint efforts and political will from the world’s governments. We must hope that this will start to happen at the UN summit. But for smallholder coffee farmers, building up resilience to increasing variation and change in the climate is the most pressing challenge. Through our program we are supporting farmers to adapt to the changing climate and to reduce emission from agriculture where possible.
To find out more about UTZ Certified and climate change, please click here for our position paper.