Coffee does more than wake up the bleary-eyed; when cultivated sustainably, it also provides an important environmental service.
A new EcoMicro project will allow small-scale organic coffee growers in Guatemala, Honduras and Peru to quantify the value of that service, using an innovative tool that measures a farm’s contribution to mitigating climate change. The idea is to eventually offer a “carbon premium” to reward responsible farming and create lines of credit to support increased resilience.
Unlike intensive industrial agriculture, which depletes fields of their nutrients and produces major greenhouse gas emissions, organic farming practices enrich the soil and provide long-term storage of carbon, a basic building block of healthy plant life.
“The more we bring carbon back down into the soil, it’s good for the climate, but it’s also great for the fields,” explained Monika Firl, Director of Sustainability for Cooperative Coffees, one of several organizations involved in the new project.
The three-year pilot project—called “Carbon, Climate and Coffee: Moving the Needle from Cool Farms to Soil Carbon Premiums”—will be the first EcoMicro project to be implemented on a regional level. It will include six coffee farmer cooperatives in three countries: Manos Campesinas in Guatemala, COMSA in Honduras and Sol y Café, CENFROCAFE, Norandino and CAC Pangoa in Peru.
Members of the cooperatives tend to be family farmers who hold an average of one to three hectares of land. The project will initially benefit about 250 of the cooperatives’ 12,500 members, but the potential is there to achieve a much larger scale.
The participating farmers already know what it means to farm sustainably; in some cases, their families have worked the land in environmentally fragile areas for generations. They plant shade trees among the coffee shrubs, enhance the composting process and manage waste responsibly. Most of them have international certifications as organic growers. What this project aims to do is to calculate the positive carbon impact of their farming techniques.
“That has not been given value,” said Noé Rivera, CEO of Mayacert, a Guatemala-based company specialized in certifications of agricultural products and processes, which will oversee the project. In addition to growing their crops organically, Rivera said, these farmers are benefiting the environment.
“I think we have to make that visible,” he said in a phone interview.
A key component in this effort will be the Cool Farm Tool, an online calculator that farmers can use to determine their carbon footprint. One of the first steps in this project will be to adapt the tool to collect more data relevant to the coffee-growing environment.
Once enough information has been collected, the project will develop a methodology to put a monetary value on the environmental services these farmers are providing and create financial incentives for those who are sequestering more carbon than they use. The project will also develop climate risk assessments for the cooperatives and help their small financial service arms establish lines of credit to support climate-smart investments.
“Having a better idea of risk will help these cooperatives structure better loans and encourage farmers to become more resilient and to intensify the practices that help mitigate climate change,” said EcoMicro Regional Coordinator, Ruth Houliston.
In a business beset by challenges—including low international coffee prices and the effects of a changing climate—the farmer cooperatives believe the incentives will produce the desired effect.
“We are part of the solution, we always have been, and at the same time we are aware that we can do more,” said Fernando Aguirre, a forestry engineer at Sol y Café, in northern Peru. Providing a “plus” to farmers for their carbon performance will give producers all the more reason to continue improving, he added.
Fredy Pérez Zelaya, who coordinates the technical team at Café Orgánico Marcala (COMSA), in western Honduras, said the Cool Farm Tool will reinforce the training in organic farming that COMSA provides to its producers. “This is a tool that will strengthen us,” he said, “because all that work that we’re doing, you’ll be able to see it.”
Some of the most significant environmental benefits organic coffee growers provide are hidden under the ground. Monika Firl, who led the Cooperative Coffees’ input during project design, said that science is only beginning to recognize the enormous potential of soil to capture more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequester it long term as soil organic carbon—to the benefit of the soil, the plants and the atmosphere.
The right mix of microbiological life builds soil that can hold onto carbon, which in turn enables plants to better absorb nutrients and become more productive and resistant to disease, she said. On the flip side, she explained, the overuse of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers depletes the soil.
“If you were to take antibiotics every day, you would starve to death, because your gut bacteria wouldn’t be able to digest the food. You would have eliminated that service in your own digestive system,” she said. “It’s exactly the same thing in soil.”
At a COMSA demonstration farm called La Fortaleza, Pérez Zelaya helps coffee growers understand the importance of the soil’s microbiology and about the organic matter, minerals and molecular life needed to create and maintain nature’s balance. (Gray matter—intelligence—is another important element of farming, he tells them.)
“The soil is what feeds the plant, so if we have good soil that is regenerated and full of life, then that will bring us good productivity and good quality. That’s what we’re already seeing,” he said. “Now that we’re going to look at this other part too and measure the carbon that we’re capturing with these practices that we’re doing, well, even better.”
Coffee has long been a focus in efforts to promote fair trade and organic production. With an estimated 26 million coffee farmers worldwide, according to Firl, it’s important to highlight the best cultivation practices and support a fair payment system.
Now the challenge will become how to recognize the added value that high-quality coffee brings to the environment in the form of carbon storage. At Cooperative Coffees, for example, roasters have begun paying 3 cents per pound extra into a fund to support “CO
At a time when millions of people are marching in the streets over climate change, she thinks many consumers would be willing to pay a little extra to reward the farmers who are actively mitigating it and to provide incentives for others to follow their lead. “To me, that’s not a big ask,” she said.
For COMSA’s Fredy Pérez Zelaya, a third-generation coffee farmer, it all comes down to improving the quality of life for farmers who are doing their part to improve the planet. “It’s enormously satisfying for us to know that we’re contributing,” he said. “We’re here for the generations to come,” he added, “for our children and our grandchildren.”
(Read and see graphic below on: Calculating Carbon)