A new report shows that sustainable coffee farming not only helps the environment, but also brings higher net revenue for farmers.
by Francesca Rheannon
It is a common trope in development circles that, with global population set to reach more than 10 billion by 2050, sustainable agriculture practices simply don’t measure up in productivity or economic viability to the practice of industrial and GMO-enhanced agriculture.
Coffee isn’t a staple food, strictly defined, but tell that to the millions of java jonesers who wake up every morning needing a jolt of brew just to get going -- and it’s a sure bet that demand for coffee will continue to grow as the global middle class swells.
The coffee industry will be under pressure not only from population growth, but also the challenges of climate change. Will coffee producers who follow sustainable practices be able to compete with those who don’t? A new study commissioned by the Rainforest Alliance indicates that sustainable practices on coffee farms not only pay off in improved environmental conditions but also in an improved bottom line for farmers.
Sustainable Agriculture Network Certification Program
The Rainforest Alliance has offered a sustainability certification with its local partner, Fundación Natura, based on the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) standard in Colombia since 2004. The development of the standard was a cooperative effort by farmers, scientists, conservation organizations and communities.
For the Rainforest Alliance, the goals of the certification process are conservation of biodiversity and more prosperous lives for the coffee farmers. Among the environmental indicators of sustainability used by the certification process are protection of aquatic ecosystems, use of an integrated pest management program based on ecological principles, and reduced use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The social indicators include compliance with labor laws and international agreements, wages higher than or equal to the regional average and respect of workers’ right to organize unions and negotiate with employers.
Five years from the start of the certification program, more than 2,000 farms had signed up and met the requirements. To ascertain the effectiveness of the program in meeting sustainability goals, RA commissioned coffee research institute Cenicafe to conduct four studies in two Columbian coffee growing provinces. The studies examined water quality, soil quality, farmer livelihoods and impacts on an endangered tree-dwelling species of night monkey, that uses shade-grown coffee plantations.
The results of the study were released recently in a report issued by the Rainforest Alliance, Impacts of Rainforest Alliance Certification on Coffee Farms In Colombia.
CSRwire spoke with Deanna Newsom, a senior analyst in RA’s evaluation and research program -- and one of the authors of the report.
Certification Program Design
What makes a good certification program?
There are different components to look at. One is how the standards are developed. Is the process dominated by any one particular group? Because a good standard will be developed through a comprehensive, inclusive process that involves all stakeholders, including farmers, scientists, community members, environmentalists, and industry groups. And the standard needs to be periodically reviewed and revised to incorporate the results of new research and take into account what has and has not been working.
The auditing process itself is another important component: are neutral, third party auditors going onsite to determine whether the standards are being complied with?
Or is it a self-auditing situation, where the operation is reporting on its own compliance? That is obviously not the hallmark of a good standard. The stamp of approval needs to be given by auditors without a vested interest in the outcome of the audit.
How was the study conducted to make sure the results were scientifically sound?
Many members of the Colombian coffee grower’s association are certified by RA but many are not, so there was a built-in control group. It’s always relatively easy to get access to certified producers for research -- to look at their practices and measure the outcomes and impacts of applying the standard on their farm -- but it’s often difficult to get the involvement of noncertified farms.
But these noncertified farmers are critical for a scientific comparison – so that we can be sure that the findings on certified farms are due to certification status, and not some other factor. In this study, because the noncertified farms were also members of the producer's association, they seemed very willing to participate in the research.
The studies showed improved water and soil quality for the farms that were certified. To what do you attribute the difference?
In terms of water quality, one common problem with conventional farms is that there is too much activity going on at the edge of the water; there can be coffee planted within a few meters of the stream and they don't let plants grow on the stream edges. That causes erosion, which decreases the water quality because there is a lot of particulate matter in the stream.
Another big issue with conventional coffee farming is that they process the coffee beans right on the farm, removing the outer fleshy covering of the coffee bean (the cherry). That produces a nutrient rich waste effluent and, if you dump that right back into the stream, that will also decrease water quality and lead to decrease in the oxygen in the stream and animals can die. They need to make sure that effluent from processing gets treated through a series of lagoons [that can filter the water through vegetation before it trickles back to the stream.]
One other thing is the judicious use of fertilizers. Conventional farms can overuse fertilizers and that can run off into the stream and that increases the nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the water and decreased oxygen.
Productivity was also higher on these farms. Was that simply because they were environmentally healthier or was it due to better management practices?
That was one of the major findings. In terms of productivity there are a lot of things like training and technical assistance in optimum practices that goes hand-in-hand with certification in many cases. Sometimes farmers need to know best practices in terms of monitoring their crops. That's what I attribute the increased productivity to.
There have been quite a few studies in recent years that have shown that this is one of the biggest benefits of getting certified for farmers -- that the productivity goes up.
Why were net revenues up?
When we first saw the revenue data, we wondered if it was because the productivity went up and the price the farmers received for their coffee stayed the same -- they produced more coffee, so they made more money. Once we saw the productivity data we knew it was because they produced more, not because they received a higher price. The higher net income was due to the productivity.
While Colombian coffee farmers are benefitting from the Rainforest Alliance’s tree-hugging sensibilities, another tree hugger also had cause for celebrating the sustainability certification program: the endangered night monkey.
The monkeys spend up to 80 percent of their time in shaded coffee plantations – and the more shade, the better – even when they actually live in protected areas. In fact, the study found that densely shaded coffee plantations provide a buffer to these protected areas that offer habitat for endangered mammals like the night money.
One criterion for sustainability in the program is conservation of biodiversity. By encouraging conditions promoting biodiversity, the Sustainable Agriculture Network certification promotes the viability of species like the night monkey.
I’ll raise a cup of java to that.