Beyond sustainability: Why the future of coffee farming is regenerative

In the wake of global events like the pandemic, today’s consumers are more mindful than ever of the environment and the importance of doing their bit to address sustainability challenges.

However, while enjoying a morning cup of coffee or afternoon pick-me-up, many of us may not realise that the impacts of climate change are already very real for the farmers behind our favourite blends. For 125 million people around the world, coffee goes far beyond a daily ritual – it is their livelihood, but production is becoming more challenging every day.

Many farmers are being forced to grow coffee at higher altitudes due to rising temperatures, while others are dealing with unprecedented droughts or heavy rainfall. In Brazil, the world’s largest coffee-producing country, farmers are still battling to survive in the aftermath of severe frosts that damaged up to 200,000 hectares of land cultivated with coffee last year – increasing coffee prices by 70% between April 2020 and December 2021.

Research has shown that a staggering 60% of wild coffee species are endangered, and 50% of the land used to grow coffee today could be unviable by 2050. Ultimately, the future of coffee is under threat and farmers are on the front line. So how can we enhance resilience and safeguard the world’s most popular beverage? By rethinking the system.

Important progress has been made to enhance the sustainability of farming in recent years, yet agriculture remains a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss. Today, almost 24% of global emissions come from agriculture, and in coffee specifically, we know that the supply of green coffee is responsible for almost 49% of Nespresso’s carbon footprint. That’s why we need to adopt agricultural practices that not only protect and sustain landscapes, but also restore and replenish them – which is where regenerative agriculture comes in.

“But what does regenerative agriculture actually mean?”, you may ask. While a standardised definition has not been established yet, the general principle lies in harnessing nature to maximise positive impacts on the environment and communities. For Nespresso, regenerative coffee agriculture addresses the challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss and community resilience through practices ranging from soil conservation to organic fertilisation.

Using these natural methods can reduce the carbon footprint of production and enhance its economic viability – making farming part of the climate change solution, not the problem.

The strong links between regenerative agriculture and farmer profitability have become increasingly clear in recent years. In fact, a report released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2021 estimated that regenerative agriculture practices in Africa could add more than $15bn in gross value to farmers per year by 2030, and $70bn by 2040 (one-fifth of the current agricultural Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of sub-Saharan Africa).

Pilot projects in Africa have revealed that nature-positive techniques are not only improving crop yields for farmers, but also reducing soil erosion, improving water retention, and positively impacting biodiversity. The benefit is both a significant reduction in costs and an increase in productivity, strengthening farmer income, land restoration, food supply chain resilience and food security.

A prime example of putting this into practice is agroforestry, which involves planting trees in and around coffee farms. Trees act as carbon sinks and reinvigorate habitats, while creating benefits for the coffee crop such as soil protection, temperature regulation and water replenishment. In turn, farmers can achieve stable production volumes and consistent high quality, increasing the economic value of coffee and enabling crop diversification to further boost farmer incomes. As part of the Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality Program, we’ve planted 6 million trees since 2014, with plans in place to reach 12 million by 2025.

The results from biodiversity projects we’re piloting have also demonstrated the huge potential of nature to address key challenges. Introducing beehives on farms, for example, has shown us that bees can boost productivity and coffee quality by increasing pollination efficiencies. As an added bonus, honey can provide an extra revenue stream, earning an additional $950 per farm for Colombian producers in 2020.

Every coffee region requires tailored solutions, so activity could focus on natural flood barriers in one area, for instance, or introducing organic practices in another. Partnering with farmers to identify their specific needs is therefore crucial. Working with the Rainforest Alliance, we’ve recently introduced a Regenerative Coffee Scorecard to tackle this issue, supporting the evaluation of performance against key regenerative metrics, as well as areas of improvement.

The transition to regenerative agriculture cannot be achieved by farmers alone and will of course require the collaboration of all coffee stakeholders to innovate and finance solutions. But it’s an exciting first step.

By working together, our industry has the potential to regenerate landscapes, restore healthy ecosystems, build farmer resilience, and mitigate the impacts of climate change – to safeguard coffee for future generations.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie