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Six Ways to Protect Coffee Growers' Yields and Livelihoods

Coffee is one of the world’s most heavily traded commodities, but climate instability and price fluctuations are putting farmer livelihoods at risk.
By Sally Millett on August 25, 2021

Intense market competition, price fluctuations, and climatic instability are just three examples of the challenges facing many coffee producers across the globe. Moreover, roughly 80% of the 12.5 million farms in the global coffee sector are smallholder operations in developing countries where the income generated in the coffee industry can be critical to families, communities, and governments.

The income generated in the coffee industry can be critical to families, communities, and governments.

As part of our advisory services work for developing country policy-makers, IISD’s State of Sustainability Initiatives (SSI) team looked at how three major coffee-producing nations are finding ways to protect farmers’ livelihoods and adapt to climate change. By identifying successes in Colombia, Costa Rica, and Ethiopia, we aim to help other governments tackling similar challenges.

Protecting Farmers’ Livelihoods

Coffee is one of the world’s most heavily traded commodities and provides jobs for over 125 million people worldwide. Certain practices can help farmers improve their chances of selling their products and secure a stable income.

Building coffee brand recognition

Strong branding and marketing can help sustainable coffee products stand out from cheaper alternatives on the supermarket shelf.

In Colombia, the non-profit organization Federación Nacional de Cafeteros has played an instrumental role in raising the profile of Colombian coffee. They first garnered widespread attention after creating the character “Juan Valdéz,” the archetype of a Colombian coffee grower that has become an internationally recognized icon for the “Café de Colombia” brand. Colombia now has such a solid reputation for high-quality coffee production that protected “geographical indications”—labels that use a product’s geographical origin as proof of its quality—have been established to differentiate Colombian coffee from its competitors in saturated markets, such as the European Union.

Complying with voluntary sustainability standards

Voluntary sustainability standards (VSSs) set a series of requirements that farmers must follow to ensure their products meet various social and environmental performance criteria, such as protecting biodiversity and ensuring workers’ safety. As demand for sustainable coffee grows in places like Europe and the United States, complying with VSSs can help farmers access new markets—often with the promise of earning higher prices and premiums.

As demand for sustainable coffee grows in places like Europe and the United States, complying with VSSs can help farmers access new markets.

There are many VSSs operating in the Ethiopian coffee sector. Results can vary, but several studies show how VSSs can help Ethiopian farmers earn better incomes. For example, one study estimated that Fairtrade-certified farmers and cooperatives received a total of nearly USD 30 million in premiums in 2015 to invest in community projects. Another found that Rainforest Alliance or joint Fairtrade and Organic certification helped increase Ethiopian farmers’ incomes and reduce poverty.

Diversifying farm businesses through agrotourism

Agrotourism can offer coffee farming communities a way to diversify their income sources and thus reduce their vulnerability to market instabilities. 

For example, coffee farms such as Café de Monteverde in Costa Rica offer educational tours and tasting experiences for tourists. Studies show that agrotourism ventures have helped Costa Rican farmers secure more stable livelihoods and better adapt to external stresses, such as declining crop prices and climate change. Furthermore, a study carried out in the village of Mastatal found that agrotourism had not only increased local revenue and food security but also fostered more environmentally sustainable farming practices.

Mitigating the Impacts of Climate Change

Climate change is impacting agricultural yields the world over. The following examples demonstrate how farmers can prepare and adapt amid changing weather patterns.

Adopting climate-resilient farming practices

Climate-smart farming practices range from crop diversification to forest conservation. Some countries have also made them a significant component of their climate adaptation strategies

In Ethiopia, farm-level adaptation measures such as irrigation, mulching, terracing, and pruning can help maintain coffee yields despite rising temperatures and erratic rainfall. Tree shade management can contribute by lowering temperatures and protecting crops from extreme weather. The Ethiopian government is helping communities plant shade trees and regenerate forests as part of their Climate Resilient Green Economy strategy. Shade coffee certification schemes have also proven to be effective in incentivizing Ethiopian farmers to protect forests.

Managing coffee pests and diseases

Pest control measures and resistant coffee varieties can help producers cope with the growth in pests and diseases caused by climate change.

Coffee farms in Colombia have seen a proliferation of pests, such as the coffee rust fungus and borer beetles. To stop these pests from destroying their crops, farmers are experimenting with different pest-control measures, such as releasing a predator of the coffee rust fungus—the Beauveria bassiana fungus. Through their Cenicafé research centre, the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros has also spent years developing coffee varieties that are resistant to rust and diseases. Furthermore, the Colombian government has invested over USD 1.4 billion in loans and other measures to replace coffee plants with rust-resistant strains.

Reducing carbon emissions in agriculture 

Lowering or even eliminating carbon emissions in coffee production is crucial for the sector’s long-term sustainability. It can help farmers build a competitive advantage too.

Costa Rica is a pioneer in carbon-neutral coffee production. It was the first country to introduce a Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action plan to help coffee farmers reduce their emissions. Furthermore, the Costa Rican cooperative Coopedata was the first coffee company in the world to be certified for carbon neutrality by an internationally recognized standard—Publicly Available Specification (PAS) 2060. As well as contributing to the country’s goal to become carbon neutral, building this reputation will likely give Costa Rica an edge in international coffee markets.

While many hurdles remain, these examples demonstrate some of the unique and effective solutions that are contributing to a more sustainable coffee industry. The SSI team identified these practices to advise other countries facing similar issues—please visit our website for more information on our advisory services offered.

This blog was written from research conducted by Vivek Voora and Sara Elder. The author would like to thank Cristina Larrea, Sara Elder, and David Perri for their valuable feedback on earlier drafts of this blog.