In our efforts to be true to our mission of making coffee greener and in order to achieve our goal of having a fully carbon neutral supply chain by 2025, we had to start from farm level and, first, understand the environmental impact of producing specialty coffee. For this reason, our PECA team has been working together with coffee growers in the seven origins where we operate to measure their GHG emissions.
Reducing Footprint on Farms
After beginning a Carbon Footprint Reduction pilot program with 50 farms in Tolima, Colombia, in which the NGO Solidaridad was our guide and partner, the PECA team learned how to take measurements and use the Cool Farm Alliance’s Cool Farm Tool calculator. By analyzing the results, we were able to establish the best strategies for reducing GHG (greenhouse gases). Quantifying the greenhouse gases generated at the farms through the carbon footprint analysis is the first step in establishing the actions necessary for coffee farmers to reach their objectives.
On coffee farms in Planadas (Tolima) we implemented the Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) model that Solidaridad manages. The following activities were established in accordance with the results of which practices at the farms generate the biggest emissions of GHG:
- More efficient use of fertilizers
- Efficient use of water in the wet mill and residual waters
- Better disposition and management of the coffee cherry pulp
- Planting of native trees as living barriers, shade or system management and/or conservation of the soil
These activities are not dissimilar from the work we already engage in with coffee farmers, but it is a slow process, and one that’s performed step by step.
Efficient Use of Fertlizers
Making better use of fertilizers is a complex but critical task, given how essential they are to the production of food; it’s worth noting that agriculture and cattle are the human activities that produce the most greenhouse gasses emissions.
To produce high quality coffee, it requires sufficient nutrition of the plant, which results in a better physical quality of the bean and an excellent cup quality.
Proper plant nutrition doesn’t mean a higher quantity of fertilizers, as plants only take the necessary quantity of nutrients they require. Providing a plant more fertilizer than it needs can often be worse than not applying any fertilizer at all, resulting in loss of money, soil damage, groundwater contamination, and in the short term an imbalance in the soil.
There are two cost that must be considered with fertilizers: energy and environmental. Both are generated with the production of chemical fertilizers and when applied in the crops. Studies indicate that up to 50% of nitrogen, 70% of phosphorus and 40% of the potassium applied as chemical fertilizers, are ultimately not utilized by the plants. During the fertilizers’ usage cycle they emit greenhouse gasses such as CO2 (carbon dioxide), and N₂O (nitrous oxide). While not appearing in as many headlines, N₂O is even worse than CO2, remaining in the atmosphere for over a hundred years.
Given this scenario we must act now, and there are already fertilizers on the market with a lower carbon footprint and more efficient nitrogen sources that are more sustainable. In the results we found that 60% of the emissions measured at the farms originated from fertilization (11% at production and 49% in application). Our goal, through our PECA team, is to train coffee farmers in these new technologies and the importance of determining the appropriate quantity of fertilizer through soil analysis. The cost of soil analysis in the long run tends to be negligible compared to the savings can be achieved when using the appropriate doses of fertilizers to maximize production. Our team also works with labs to find discounts for soil analyses, and in some cases where the coffee farmer cannot afford one, our PECA agronomist analyzes the previous harvest and drafts a fertilizing plan based on the extraction of nutrients, while advising it is preferrable to have a proper soil analysis. Another activity being implemented in all origins are ‘demonstration plots’ to compare tree productivity with the quantity of fertilizers used by the coffee farmers, versus the quantities suggested by the soil analysis.
Efficient Use of Water on Farms
In the post-harvest process during the wet mill, residual waters and coffee cherry pulp are generated, which also produce GHG as they decompose. According to our measurements, 34% of the emissions are generated by the wet mill residual waters and 4% via the handling of crop waste. The PECA team works with the coffee farmers on the measurements of the water being used and establishing actions to reduce the use of water in wet mills without affecting the cup quality. Regarding water treatment, simple alternatives are being built to offer coffee famers solutions such as using lime to correct the pH of coffee wastewater, construction of filtering beds, biofilters, green filters, and ensuring equipment already in place is functional and efficient.
Better Management of Cherry Pulp
Regarding the handling of coffee cherry pulp, farmers are encouraged to maintain a compost-covered area. But also, and most importantly, that they rake and rotate it weekly, facilitating a faster transformation to organic fertilizer because it maximizes oxygenation, thereby allowing for more of the microorganisms that decompose the material. It is an alternative for fertilization at the farm and an improvement of soil quality.
Planting Native Tree
Last but not the least is the planting of trees, this tends to be the easiest and less expensive way to help mitigate greenhouse gases. During their photosynthetic process, trees absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and release oxygen.
The best option will always be to have the coffee trees as part of agroforestry systems, which besides the conservation of ecosystems and biodiversity, guarantees that this model will not affect productivity. The diminishment of direct sunlight reaching the coffee trees is solved by good shade management through diligent pruning. In Tolima, with Solidaridad alongside our PECA team, a demonstration will take place showing coffee farmers how to perform this pruning, using the pruning tool donated by Solidaridad, which in turn will help strengthen the community work.
With this strategy of prioritizing the planting of native species, it facilitates the following functions: green fertilizer, living fences, biomass wood-based bioenergy and fruit trees. These native species not only help to capture CO2 but also to take care of the soil, prevent erosion, provide organic matter input, and reduce the pressure towards the forest in search of wood and food.
We began by establishing community nurseries with native species in several of our origins. The first step was collecting native seeds, with their final destination being the farms. They were planted in the coffee parcels other areas requiring reforestation, in zones affected by landslides, or water basins. In this mission we had the support of allies including Solidaridad, Starbucks, and Counter Culture Coffee.
Investing in Coffee Producers
We have progressed in critical areas such as no logging or burning of land to prepare for crops. Also, we must start with maintaining the cultivation areas of the farm and not making changes in the usage of the soil, as these practices must prevail and start with the ones identified in the strategy for Climate Smart Agriculture.
Helping coffee producers to measure their carbon emissions and understand where they can improve is key to help the whole industry have a more sustainable supply chain. Prevention, reduction and mitigation all help protect our planet.
We’re certain we’re on the right path, with the PECA team and Solidaridad focused on the measurements of the carbon footprint in each of our origins. This will allow us to forge a way forward for years to come. Surely, with the sum of these small actions we can make a huge difference. ¡Together we are making coffee better!
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