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November ’19 Editorial Comment: We need to talk about deforestation – in coffee

November ’19 Editorial Comment: We need to talk about deforestation – in coffee



Agricultural commodities exist in a precarious balance with nature and increasingly it is nature that is losing out. As highlighted in Peter Baker’s in-depth article in the November 2019 issue of C&CI, production of cocoa in West Africa has had a devastating effect on forests in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. But coffee also has a growing imprint on land, and as climate change affects where coffee can be grown, and as demand continues to grow, so the risk of deforestation due to coffee also increases.

Conservation International (CI) estimates that the coffee industry will need to produce between 4 million and 14 million additional tonnes of coffee per year to meet demand by 2050. Unless farmers can significantly increase productivity, the industry will need to double the area under production by then. Were that to happen, production would become a significant driver of deforestation. CI estimates that tropical forests currently cover 60 per cent of the land that is amenable to coffee growing and that regions of particular concern include the Andes, Central America and Southeast Asia.

But the evidence is there that coffee has already had an effect on deforestation and has been a very significant part of coffee’s production growth in many countries. In India for example there is mounting concern about deforestation in the Western Ghats. The major coffee zone of Kodagu has lost 10,200 hectares of forest in the past 12 years. Official figures show a continual and accelerating national coffee area in the region.

At the heart of the problem in cocoa – and in coffee – is the fact that growers live close to or below the poverty line. They have not been able to invest in productivity and the low cost route to growing more coffee is to cut down virgin forest and turn it over to agriculture. Consistently low coffee prices, reduced production on existing land because of climate change and a dearth of investment will lead as sure as night follows day to trees being felled. As I learnt at the SCA conference in Boston earlier this year, work by Rainforest Alliance and UTZ suggests that the highest deforestation risks due to coffee production are in some of the poorest areas: Nicaragua, Honduras, Peru and Indonesia.

It’s time for coffee to act proactively, before deforestation takes place at the scale that it has for soy, palm oil, cattle farming and cocoa, but there’s an issue. In fact, there are several issues, not least as a result of the fact that although around 55% of all global coffee production is certified by schemes that to some extent address the issue, the rest isn’t. There are also significant differences in how certification schemes address the issue. As Rainforest Alliance pointed out, there are also big gaps in our understanding of where coffee production areas really are. How can we begin to monitor deforestation due to coffee and the rate at which it takes place if we don’t know with certainty where coffee is being grown?

Certification is certainly part of the solution and so is the use of new technology that makes monitoring, tracking and tracing effective, but all of the stakeholders in the sector need to get involved. If it is possible to use technology to track coffee back to a farm and ‘tip’ the farmer (see our article about propina on page 7), and if it is possible to use remote sensing from satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor production (see page 9), then it is surely possible to use technology to monitor changes in land use. Satellite data is already being used to monitor deforestation caused by cocoa. To avoid deforestation, the coffee sector needs to increase productivity on existing land and provide farmers with incentives so they benefit from conservation initiatives that protect forests. We don’t appreciate the economic value of forests compared to other income-generating opportunities. As Michael Optiz, Managing Director at the Hanns Neumann Stiftung pointed out, environmental damage and negative externalities aren’t taken into account, and the price of a cup of coffee doesn’t reflect the true cost of production.

Producers of cocoa, palm oil, soy and beef have all made sector-wide zero deforestation commitments, as have many other industries, as part of the New York Declaration on Forests, the Tropical Forest Alliance, Consumer Goods Forum, and other initiatives. But the coffee industry has yet to make an equivalent announcement. Another important problem is that, unlike the cocoa sector, companies and governments have yet to properly engage in the issue and have little understanding of how producing coffee affects forests and what can be done to ensure that its effects are reduced, such as through the use of agroforestry. And farmers and the trade are less likely to support initiatives to prevent deforestation if they can’t be provided with sustainable business models that protect forests and ensure profitability. The Sustainable Coffee Challenge is working on farm renovation, and in partnership with Walmart Foundation and CI is mapping areas at the highest risk from deforestation to determine the most important areas to rehabilitate, but what’s really needed is an industry-wide effort, based on what has and is being done in other sectors.

This Editorial comment  first appeared in the November’19 issue of C&CI. Click on subscribe now if you wish to read more informative articles in the current and future issues of C&CI.

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