Coffee Industry Reps Call for Regenerative Coffee Transformation

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November 29, 2021 (BANGKOK) – The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through USAID Green Invest Asia and the Global Coffee Platform convened industry experts on regenerative practices and innovations in the coffee sector on November 24 for the second dialogue of a seven-part series on low-carbon coffee production in Southeast Asia.

Experts ranging from soil microbiologists to agronomists and supply chain managers debated what regenerative coffee systems should look like, the feasibility for smallholder coffee farmers to transition from current production systems that are intensive monoculture (only coffee crop planted) to more “regenerative” ones that increase productivity, biodiversity, and carbon stocks, and how to mitigate any short-term trade-offs as farmers diversify their plantings.

Regenerative agriculture, also referred to as ecological farming or nature-based solutions that address climate change, aims to restore what has been depleted from the land, said Barry Flaming, USAID Green Invest Asia’s agriculture and forestry advisor. “It brings a renewed focus on soil health, and the living soil food web as the foundation of productivity, stressing a need for a fundamental shift from feeding the plant to feeding the soil and the soil organisms.”

The planet’s agricultural land has become so depleted that the United Nations predicts there are only about 60 growing seasons left until the world’s soil can no longer grow crops.

Rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity through agriculture practices like intercropping (planting of different types of crops/trees alongside each other in one field), cover crops, reducing tillage, and optimizing the use of chemical fertilizers can all help improve long-term productivity and reduce the release of greenhouse gas emissions into a warming atmosphere.

As a company, like any supply chain company, we look for four elements: quantity, quality, consistency of supply…and increasingly important is the [environmental] footprint,” said Piet van Asten, Head of Sustainable Production Systems- Coffee for ofi, recently known as Olam Food Ingredients. “When you diversify your cropping system, you also diversify your ecosystem.”

Soil was mentioned as a concern in the webinar at least 50 times by industry experts, some of whom are focusing on soil interventions to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The environmental consulting group, Enveritas, shared results from a baseline study on fertilizer use in Vietnam, the world’s second largest coffee producer, that it conducted with coffee corporates JDE Peet’s, Nestle and J.M. Smucker Co. to analyze “hotspots” of chemical fertilizer overuse. Nitrogen fertilizers are one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions from global agricultural production resulting in significant emissions of nitrous oxide, which has approximately 300 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

“The arc of climate action must be long and wide – there’s more than 12 million coffee farms worldwide. The impact of your sustainability decisions, your investments, your actions through your organizations and through the platforms you participate in needs to ripple very far and very wide to influence land use,” said Roopa Karia, Deputy Director of the Regional Environmental Office for USAID in Asia, addressing all the participants. “‘Transformative shift’ can sound very cliched. But as COP26  reminded us, that is what is needed, nothing less than a transformative shift in how industry operates.”

At the latest UN Climate Change Conference (Conference of the Parties), or COP26, more than 100 countries committed to halting and reversing forest loss and land degradation by 2030, including through the implementation and redesign of policies and programs to incentivize sustainable agriculture. The European Union (EU) announced legislation requiring companies to prove that the products they sell, including coffee, have not contributed to deforestation.

When asked what it would take to achieve “transformative” change in the coffee sector, Hannes Zellweger, Managing Director Zurich for SOFIES, the sustainability consulting firm, replied: “A transformative change is always linked to taking risk, also financially. Who will, for example, pay for net-zero [commitment in 2050] within the supply chain. Retailers, roaster, traders, or farmers? I propose to further engage the different actors along the supply chain to [achieve] net-zero, and [if] this can be solved jointly, it would be very impactful for the transformation.”

Upcoming dialogues

The next Sustainable Coffee Dialogue, scheduled for February 10, 2022, will cover climate finance and the low-carbon economy in the coffee industry. For more information, please contact USAID Green Invest Asia’s Partnerships and Sustainability Manager, Nichapat Na Thalang, at [email protected], or Global Coffee Platform in Vietnam, Nhung Doan, at [email protected].

All dialogue recordings are available here.  The slide presentation for the second dialogue is available here. 


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