A path to sustainable beans, lands, and lives
Armed with my second cup of coffee for the day, I feel ready to dig into the story of these magic beans—but also a little hesitant. Is it the caffeine making me feel anxious, or does this feeling come from just how problematic the global supply chain can be for the beloved beverage enjoyed daily by roughly two-thirds of Americans?
Coffee beans are among the most traded commodities in the world, so the impact this market has on the planet—and the people living on it—is significant. And in the next 30 years, demand for coffee is expected to double.
Fortunately, researchers and coffee lovers saw this particular blend of issues brewing years ago and have come together to let their ideas percolate. UMass professors Timothy Randhir and David King, along with their graduate students, are in phase one of their five-year project to create a new system for the sustainable production of coffee, with funding from a $1 million National Science Foundation grant and several collaborating universities.
“Coffee production has impacts on poverty, migration, and youth and female empowerment—all those things are embedded in the supply chain, which we don’t see when we look at a cup of coffee,” Randhir explains. Because the issues stemming from the conventional coffee supply chain are complex and systemic, Randhir and King have set out to augment the Multiscale Ecosystem Framework developed by Randhir to approach these issues on many fronts. In collaboration with experts from multiple disciplines, this project will converge and integrate innovative systems in biology, economics, and geology (just to name a few), to rebalance the needs of ecosystems, farmers, and coffee drinkers.
Coffee production is a buyers’ market. That means you can help drive coffee production methods in a greener direction by choosing a bean brand that’s:
- Certified through the Fairtrade International system—an indicator that the brand ethically sources its beans for fair wages.
- Displaying a Bird Friendly seal— signaling that the beans come from farms that actively maintain bird habitats and combat deforestation.
- From a B-Corporation—a certification that focuses on the local social and environmental impacts of a brand’s production model.
- Organic—with fewer harsh pesticides, it’s healthier for you and the planet.
In addition to wildlife habitat loss, the removal of native plants both in sun-grown and shade-grown methods has led to a dramatic reduction in the carbon sequestration that the rainforest can provide, allowing greater carbon emissions into the Earth’s atmosphere.
While the project is continuing to gather data, the researchers have already identified a potential land-use solution to test: the integrated open canopy (IOC) model. In IOCs, farmers take a plot of forested area, clear the middle of it, and plant their coffee, leaving a border of untouched tropical forest around it. The forest acts as a protective barrier against leaf rust—an airborne fungus whose spores are spread by wind over long distances, destroying crops—while also encouraging more natural pollination and maintaining the natural habitat for local wildlife.
The data being gathered now will help write a recipe for sustainable success for farmers to improve not only the quality of their products but also the quality of their lives.
This research project’s success is predicated on the idea that the changes in one area of sustainability will support the others. By rehabilitating local biodiversity, providing clean water, using coffee pulps to create nutrient-rich fertilizer, sequestering carbon emissions, and implementing sustainable methods for coffee processing, farmers can protect their crops and land while cashing in on renewable energy credits from the government. With a higher income that is less dependent on market volatility, farmers can pay higher wages and become less dependent on cheap untrained labor, and at the same time afford to invest in more sustainable equipment.
Over the next four years, this team has its work cut out for it in the Yoro Biological Corridor—identifying issues within the researchers’ individual specialties and then using that knowledge to develop integrated systems that provide realistic and impactful solutions. King says, “It is good to be working with people who share in a vision of a more balanced paradigm.”
By filling this huge knowledge gap in sustainable food systems on a micro scale, King and Randhir hope to formulate a scalable model applicable to any size farm that is usable for all products. If they pull this off, it would be a global game changer.