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Text reading “Fixing Coffee”
Coffee spilled on a white table.

Fixing Coffee

A path to sustainable beans, lands, and lives

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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.

Three researchers with coffee mugs, standing in front of a purple backdrop and coffee plants.

David Murillo Bustillo ’26PhD, faculty members David King and Timothy Randhir, Department of Environmental Conservation

Eco unfriendly

To keep coffee lovers well stocked, coffee production has wiped out huge swaths of forested areas. A natural reaction may be to intentionally buy from small farms. They have to be better, right? Well, you probably already do; about 70% of the world’s coffee is grown on small-scale farms. But depending on the growers’ method of farming, the impact can be pretty similar to larger plantations. For the sun-grown coffee method, large tracts of land are completely cleared of native plant life, which are then replaced by coffee shrubs. This method provides the highest amount of sellable beans because the crops can be planted more densely. However, the method requires a large amount of pesticides, completely disrupting the local ecosystem and further damaging the land.

While the shade-grown method preserves some of the forests around the plantation, important features of more mature habitats are often removed, including vines, flowering plants, and larger trees, forcing many animal species to go elsewhere for survival.

Both methods are used in Central America, where most countries depend on coffee exports. Over the past two decades, Honduras in particular has become an ever-increasing supplier of the world coffee market and is now the fifth-largest producer globally. King regularly conducts research in the Yoro region of the country and explains, “The pressure on the forests of Honduras is readily apparent to anyone who has spent any time in the country. A forest patch we pass by one year is converted to coffee the next. The trees at a bird survey point established in prior years are reduced to muddy stumps. Entire mountainsides that were cloud forests are now orderly rows of coffee.”

Sipping sustainably

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.

A person looks through binoculars toward the camera, standing in front of a purple background between coffee plants.

David Murillo Bustillo ’26PhD, a graduate student on the research team, has documented wildlife on Honduran coffee farms for Randhir and King’s project.

Fair-trade folly

Unfortunately, farmers face daunting economic sustainability issues, too. Most small coffee farms are in impoverished areas and the supply chain is designed to keep it that way. Market volatility for coffee is high, making farmers’ income incredibly variable from year to year. You may be thinking to yourself, “Hey, my Starbucks drink was $5 this morning! Now you’re telling me that’s not enough?” Yes, and here’s why: As with most food and drink products, these markups in price come along later in the supply chain and the profits do not trickle back down to the producers themselves. Often, farmers make only cents on the dollar, which, in some cases, is just barely enough to cover their production costs, leaving nothing for them to live on.

Because there is so little profit going back to the farmers, they often have to depend on cheap labor to make ends meet—and there is no cheaper labor force than underage workers. Kids in Honduras and from many coffee-producing countries across the area are regularly taken out of school to work, limiting their opportunities for academic pursuits and stagnating the education that locals receive generation after generation. In the direst situations, families will pack it in and migrate to the cities to find other employment, fragmenting social networks.

Researchers stand in front of a purple backdrop, examining a coffee plant.

Rather than operating on assumptions or anecdotes, researchers are carefully collecting data to develop and test workable solutions for these complex issues, exploring how local and global conditions impact environmental, social, and economic sustainability on individual farms and in nearby communities. To do this, doctoral candidate Ana Quinonez Camarillo and a team of local researchers started by traveling from farm to farm throughout the Yoro Biological Corridor in Honduras to talk to growers about their systems, income, and ability to invest in sustainability.

Camarillo was encouraged by their initial survey of 600 farmers. “I am very excited about the openness we encountered with most coffee farmers,” she says. “Throughout the process, we trained nine locals to help us.” Once all the baseline data points are collected, this interdisciplinary team will move on to phase two—working to design, test, and implement new systems for local farmers that will make their plantations more environmentally, socially, and economically friendly.

The team also plans to make a social impact by generating training and employment opportunities and focusing on gender equality. Education programs for training in specialized practices, micro-loans for female-owned farms, and the targeted hiring of women are just a few of the initiatives under development. However, Randhir and King are already taking every opportunity to incorporate these goals even in the early stages of this project. He explains, “We are training young emerging researchers, so that they can take on this legacy of the sustainability practices we are developing and bring it back to their home country in some sort of leadership role either as academics, working with companies, or even creating nonprofits.”

Cleaner dirt

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.

A group of people stands outdoors with a green vista behind them.

Rios and Palencia with Guatemalan partners.

Manifesting a better future—one cup at a time

Lisbeth Alicia Pacheco-Palencia ’14MBA has been drinking café con leche since she was a child growing up in Guatemala. Decades later, her love of coffee has only grown—now combined inseparably with her passion to give back to those who grow the beans. Along with partner Jolian Rios, Pacheco-Palencia founded Ethos Roasters in 2016, a company that works with small farmer cooperatives, providing them with economic opportunities and helping them grow their business with sustainability in mind.

“We started Ethos in 2016, with the mission to champion life-changing prices for small farmers,” Pacheco-Palencia says. “We source the absolute best coffees from our small farmers, at prices that allow them to send all their kids to school (instead of having them work at the farms), invest in their quality and green coffee-processing capabilities, and commit to them long-term so there’s a powerful, reliable source of income that incentivizes them to raise their own bar on quality and sustainability every year.”