Sometimes I wonder how often I’ll say to new and old friends “Let’s get together for a cup of coffee!” It’s an automatic and generic question, but transformative dialogues and ideas can emerge over this beloved beverage.
New insights about coffee brewed during a scope of work involving two leading players in the coffee industry: Mercon Coffee Group (one of the leading ‘green’ coffee suppliers in the world) and Lavazza (the well-known Italian coffee brand). This pair of companies engaged Terra Genesis to develop regenerative coffee cropping concepts for the coffee farms they source from in Nicaragua. Their joint goal is to build and maintain a low-carbon, resilient, and high-performing coffee supply system, because they recognize that the economic and climate resilience and well-being of their farmer partners is their strongest asset in ensuring long-term supply. The primary goals of our project with them were to support the design and implementation of regenerative agroforestry practices on coffee farms, to diversify coffee growers’ incomes, and to improve their climate resilience.
We set out to design the most regenerative coffee production system we could imagine, but by the end of the project we came to ask ourselves how the popularity of “sustainable coffee” itself can become a vehicle for regeneration in the world.
The urgency and significance of the work did not escape us as we began. Coffee is increasingly making news headlines as a much-loved global commodity that is particularly vulnerable to changing climate conditions. Rising temperatures are predicted to make many current coffee-producing regions drastically less suitable for coffee cultivation, and reduce suitable areas for growing coffee by up to 50% by 2050. Add to that the compounding crises of volatile coffee prices and increasingly degraded farm ecosystems and soils that impact the 25 million growers in the world, who are mostly smallholder coffee farmers in the global south.
The result is a perfect storm in the coffee industry.
A Nodal Intervention
As we began our collaboration, we recognized that a complex, “wicked problem” such as this requires a nodal intervention– a strategic move that simultaneously addresses multiple challenges while also opening up new, previously unseen possibilities. To that end, we set out design a coffee cropping system that would yield many positive outcomes including:
- Decreased dependence on chemical inputs
- Increased resilience and adaptability to changing climate conditions
- Increased biodiversity
- Captured carbon, mitigating the total climate footprint of the coffee produced
- Increased production of other crops to diversify farmers’ incomes
While this sounds like a lot to manage at once, we assured our partners that coffee agroforestry (the production of coffee in shaded, highly diverse polyculture systems) could support achieving all of these goals simultaneously.
For example, dependence on chemical inputs can be reduced by focusing on building ecological health. Added biodiversity naturally attracts birds and other other natural predators of common coffee pests, including the coffee borer beetle. It also nourishes soil and adds sources of biological nutrients into the system (green manures, biomass plants, nitrogen fixers). Meanwhile, agroforestry (a farming method that prioritizes the proliferation and cultivation of trees) also helps with climate change adaptation, because the shade from woody species protects the coffee plants from excess heat, and root systems along with heavy mulches make the soils less susceptible to erosion and water evaporation.
Agroforestry has also been consistently demonstrated as one of the most promising strategies for increasing carbon stocks and carbon sequestration on agricultural land. Lastly, diverse coffee polycultures incorporate innumerable staple foods, local marked crops, high-value export crops, and other beneficial species that can help to diversify farmers’ diets and incomes. This positive impact represents a more ambitious goal than a term like “equal exchange coffee” seems to suggest.
Learning from the Coffee Growers
When our team member Chris Kaput traveled to Nicaragua to visit the coffee farms Mercon and Lavazza source from, he quickly learned that many of the coffee farmer leaders were already pioneering and experimenting with coffee polycultures. Our final cropping concepts integrated elements of what they were already developing, such as growing lines of corn and other annual staples between the coffee bushes, or incorporating woody crops including cloves, bananas, and cacao into the coffee production system.
While presenting our draft cropping concepts to the farmers and Mercon’s on-the-ground technical assistants, we had the chance to collect and incorporate their feedback. In a very real sense, then, our team was co-designing the cropping concepts with the coffee growers, drawing on their invaluable experience and knowledge. The result is a program that seeks to go beyond the claims of “fair trade coffee” or “ethically sourced coffee”– and towards the potential for the crop to contribute to a positive environmental impact.
Regenerative Coffee is a Journey
Even though Mercon and Lavazza have made tremendous progress and had real successes while pioneering the initiative they embarked on, regenerative cropping practices exist as continuums, and they will always have further to go on this journey.
This cropping concept design work our team did serves as a launchpad for their development as they set a new standard for what regenerative coffee can be. Borrowing Mercon’s tagline, we envision a “better coffee world” in which coffee is produced in a way that generates and promotes ecological, social and economic well-being, increases biodiversity, cleans air and water, produces food, builds healthy soils, sequesters carbon, mitigates extreme weather events and creates resilience for surrounding communities and ecoregions. Creating that better coffee world requires an ongoing investment in coffee sustainability and on the part of trading companies in the capacity, capability, well-being, and economic resilience of the coffee growers they source from.
1. Suan Som Rom is a traditional fruit forest garden system of Southern Thailand that may hold common roots with very similar systems in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The key local wet tropical fruit species of durian, longkong, and mangosteen are the foundation of an agro-ecosystem that also includes different native hardwoods, other fruit trees like burmese grapes and champadek, and cover crops like pepper leaf and native gingers.
2. This waterfall is named after the giant pandanus “Toey” that are found around this waterfall ecosystem. These pandanus were used traditionally for the fibers.
3. Nam Prik is a sort of chili sauce or salsa that is core to the daily cuisine throughout rural Thailand. It is served with a variety of fresh and quick boiled veggies. A dose of daily medicine and health. “Kapi” is a shrimp paste that is made from very small shrimp harvested in fresh, brackish, or salt waters.