Growing your cuppa joe

Agricultural production, covering an estimated 40% of the earth’s surface, is one of the major drivers of biodiversity loss globally. Our food system, largely driven by external inputs including fertilizers and agro-chemicals, has potentially surpassed the safe planetary boundary for biodiversity loss and pollution. Conversely, transforming food systems represents a major opportunity for meeting a number of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris climate agreement. Enter your morning “cuppa joe”. How many of us stop to consider the journey which those rich, roasted beans have taken to get to our cup? Do you wonder how or where the beans were grown, and what impact your humble pick-me-up might be having on the world at large?

Ripening coffee beans

Coffee has become a ubiquitous global commodity. From its production in the tropical regions of the planet, to its almost worldwide consumption, it permeates our lives. Coffee is farmed across 10 million hectares globally by about 12.5 million coffee farms. This global industry has revenues of $200 – $250 billion, but sadly with significant disparity between the profits of retailers and the economic struggles of predominantly small holder coffee producers. It is traditionally farmed by small holders on farms less than 5 hectares, who produce approximately 73% of all coffee. Sometimes these coffee farmers live on less per day than the price of your latte. Additionally, the coffee sector has been plagued by a series of issues which threaten its sustainability, from both a social and ecological perspective. These began with the price crash of coffee as a result of the dismantling of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989, accompanied by a rapidly growing supply from Brazil and other coffee producing countries, culminating in in all time low price in 2001. Increasing incidence of coffee leaf rust and other diseases have also plagued the sector in recent times. However, the recognition of these challenges has resulted in the development of a number of multi-stakeholder sustainability initiatives, with the coffee sector putting itself on a path to become “the world’s first sustainable commodity”.

Traditionally coffee was farmed within existing tropical forests, in a manner similar to its natural occurrence in the forests of Ethiopia. A number of different approaches exist for growing coffee, with varying levels of impact on native vegetation and biodiversity driven by the management intensity of the coffee farms. These production strategies include traditional or rustic coffee farming in which trees are grown under a native forest canopy and within native forest understorey. Traditional polyculture or a “coffee garden” includes native forest canopy and other commercially viable plant species, whilst in commercial polyculture the native forest is removed and replaced by commercially viable shade species. Shaded monoculture clears all forest canopy and understorey, with a few shade trees planted above the coffee crop, and finally full sun monoculture, in which only coffee trees exist. Shade-grown coffee, as opposed to sun-grown coffee, is intended to be better for biodiversity. Research has highlighted that rustic or traditional shade-grown coffee often exhibits levels of species richness and diversity similar to native forests. However, despite these benefits, and perhaps in pursuit of greater yields to satisfy our cappuccino cravings, there has been a trend towards increasing “sun coffee”.

Roasted coffee beans

One of ICON’s newest projects seeks to better understand these dynamics within the coffee supply chain. The project will investigate the challenges and opportunities for small holder coffee producers to maintain biodiversity-friendly coffee farming practices, whilst talking with retailers in Melbourne about their own challenges to buy and sell biodiversity-friendly coffee, and investigating how we might engage consumers along this journey. We also hope to evaluate the global biodiversity impacts of your humble cuppa joe and understand how different approaches are being used to drive transformative change within this industry. We’ll introduce each of these components, and our fantastic partners on this project, in more detail as our research journey progresses. But for now, let’s put the ball back in your court. Next time you cradle that cup of morning elixir, take some time to think about the people, and environment, involved in its creation.  

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