Your choice of coffee can change lives

Certified coffee supports farmers who fight climate change

It’s not easy being a coffee farmer. Droughts, disease, falling prices, climate change. All of these problems have larger consequences. When coffee farming becomes unprofitable farmers may discontinue, cutting down their coffee plants to raise cattle or sugar cane, or giving up farming altogether and emigrating to the United States. Farmers may make more money with these endeavors, but the environmental consequences are dire. Coffee farming, when sustainable practices are used, can sequester carbon and fight climate change better than other farming alternatives. But coffee is produced in tropical places in Latin America, Asia or Africa-- far removed from your breakfast table or local coffee shop. Certifications, like fair trade, Nespresso AAA, organic, or Rainforest Alliance certified let you know that your coffee was produced in a way that is environmentally or socially sustainable, depending on the certification. Certified coffee brings you a little closer to the farmer who produced your coffee.

The price of coffee is low right now, but you couldn’t be blamed for not noticing. As consumers we feel the highs as the droughts in Brazil or coffee leaf rust in Central America devastate crops and push the price of our morning cup ever higher. But we rarely get any relief when an oversupply on the market means that the price farmers get for their coffee barely covers the cost of production. But the farmers can’t help but notice when coffee prices fall.

Costa Rican coffee

Agricultural cooperatives are an important part of the story. Buyers prefer to work with a few large sellers, not with thousands of individual farmers. Cooperatives help small farmers pool their harvest to better compete on the world market. Cooperatives also support their member farmers, providing agricultural advice, processing and a fair price.

A recent report found that Costa Rican coffee farmers made a profit only two out of the last four growing seasons. I traveled to Costa Rica to meet the farmers and cooperatives who are participating in a variety of coffee certifications. Ninety-two percent of Costa Rica’s coffee farmers have small or medium-size farms. This makes cooperatives essential in Costa Rica.

Fair Trade for price stability

My first stop was Coop Pilangosta on the western state of Guanacaste. Coffee growing came late to this region and the hot dry summers make coffee growing a challenge. And it keeps getting harder.  In a few years climate change may completely eliminate coffee production from this area. Danilo and Marjalena struggle to make a living at coffee farming and to put their three children through college. ‘We bought the farm twenty-five years ago when we got married. It seemed like a nice thing…to be outdoors…to grow coffee and oranges. But if the rains come too late, we won’t have a crop this year.’ Every morning Marjalena checks the tiny flower buds on the coffee crop to see if the drought has caused them to abort. A few raindrops echo on the metal roof. ‘Keep going! Keep going!’ Danilo shouts at the sky.

About them same time that Danilo and Marjalena started farming, their cooperative became fair trade certified. Fair trade certification guarantees that farmers receive a minimum price for their coffee. This minimum price is not only good for farmers, it means that cooperatives can stay in business as well. ‘Fair Trade gave us the chance to survive when the price of coffee was low,’ says Oscar Campos, who was manager of the cooperative at the time when the price of coffee was at its lowest and coffee farmers were cutting down their coffee plants to raise cattle. ‘We had to make some changes to get the certification. We had to train the farmers and reduce the amount of pesticides. The farmers had to build better housing for the workers. But they were happy to do it because they got a good price for their coffee.’

Rainforest Alliance farm

Rainforest Alliance is for the birds

Next I visited coffee farmers growing high quality coffee on steep slopes of Tarrazu, Costa Rica. Coffee is the main industry here, and the steep slopes and high elevation make the beautiful landscape unsuitable for much else.

Jorge Ortiz, the agronomist at Coop Llano Bonito, navigates his pickup over the steep, unpaved roads. You wouldn’t want to attempt this without four-wheel drive. We get out of the pickup and shake hands with Raul, a coffee farmer with 5 hectares of land. Raul wants to plant coffee plants that are disease resistant so that he can use fewer pesticides, but he needs Jorge’s help.

The cooperative is trying to certify every member’s farm under Rainforest Alliance, but the farmers need to improve their farms before they are ready for certification. This is where Jorge’s job gets harder. He needs to train all of the cooperative’s members to reduce their pesticides even when they are faced with diseases like coffee leaf rust, the disease that devastated Guatemala’s coffee crop in 2014.

AAA for quality and the environment

Victor has two hectares of coffee on the top of a mountain in the West Valley. He inherited his father’s environmental conscience along with his coffee farm. The fluctuations in the coffee market have taken their toll and Victor has considered selling his farm and migrating to the US. ‘It’s a struggle,’ he says. But this year his cooperative started offering certifications to the farmers. If farmers make the required changes to their farms—adding shade trees to protect the soil and to provide a habitat for birds, reducing pesticides and improving the quality of his coffee—the cooperative can sell this coffee with the Nespresso AAA certification. Victor receives a small premium for the coffee the cooperative can sell with certification and this helps him make the changes to his farm. He had to make some improvements to his pesticide storage shed and plant more trees. ‘I already had a lot of trees on my property. When my brothers and I inherited this land my father said we had to keep part of it as forest. I just needed to plant more varieties of trees.’ Now he has oranges, guava, avocado and eucalyptus growing among the coffee plants.

The hardest part for Victor is the recordkeeping. He has six years of formal education and had never kept records before. ‘The agronomist helped me a lot,’ he says of Coop Victoria’s staff member who was hired specifically to help farmers comply with certifications.

The small premium he gets from the cooperative means that Victor can keep his farm. The certification gives him the incentive to do it in more sustainable way. ‘Conservation is very important. But the most important is that the kids eat.’

A Strong Cup of Coffee

Right now the supply of certified coffee outweighs demand. This limits the number of farmers that can participate in certifications and the financial incentives that they receive. Farmers need support to make these changes, and you can choose to support these farmers in their efforts to reduce chemical use and fight climate change. Without the support of consumers, farmers will lose their coffee farms, and the world will lose their environmental benefits. For its power to change the lives of small farmers, certified coffee is truly the strongest coffee your money can buy.

Read more about certified coffee here


Some of the most popular coffee certifications:

Fair Trade guarantees farmers a minimum price for their coffee. Farmers must be organized into democratic cooperatives and vote on how to distribute the 20 cents/pound social premium that cooperatives receive for certified coffee.

Nespresso AAA combines quality standards with environmental protection.

Organic certification strictly regulates the use of agrochemicals.

Rainforest Alliance certifies that producers provide a habitat for birds and other wildlife by planting shade and fruit trees on the coffee farm and by reducing agrochemicals. The certification also includes social protection for farm workers.