Coffee Growers are Fighting Climate Change

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While rising temperatures have caught many industries flat-footed, coffee companies have responded in force, bolstering their presence on the ground in coffee-growing countries like Costa Rica, Ethiopia and Indonesia. Instead of just purchasing coffee, they work with small farms to help them adapt to changing conditions, providing seeds, monitoring production and suggesting new agricultural practices. “Everybody talks about climate, but the only sector that’s actually doing something at scale is the coffee industry,” M. Sanjayan, the CEO of Conservation International, tells me as we tour the Starbucks farm in Alajuela.

Beginning in 2013, Starbucks decided to invest in growing its footprint in coffee-producing countries. It now has support centers in nine countries–a number Schultz said could triple in the coming years–and a 10-year, $500 million investment fund that supports sustainability programs, such as adaptation training for farmers and testing new coffee varieties.

Researchers say that in the future such challenges will be constant. Farmers in some regions will be able to adapt by growing at higher elevations, but in others there is nowhere else to go. Entire regions risk becoming unable to continue producing Arabica coffee, and Schultz and others say there’s no way to make the more resilient Robusta variety, which is sometimes blended with Arabica to make instant coffee, palatable to the broad coffee-drinking public.

Starbucks says it is eager to share the lessons it learns about adaptive farming with coffee growers around the globe. For big coffee companies buying from a variety of small suppliers, the argument goes, there’s no value in trying to gain a competitive advantage by hoarding trade secrets. Improving all coffee growers’ ability to survive climate change benefits the entire industry, Schultz says. The company’s network of farmer support centers distributes free seeds, teaches new adaptation methods and serves as a resource for farmers who are eager to learn how to adapt, regardless of whether they do business with Starbucks. “It may be hard for people to understand why we are sharing all this information,” says Schultz. “If we don’t, there’s going to be tremendous adverse pressure on the coffee industry.”

Illycaffè takes a similar approach through what the company has termed the University of Coffee, a program with some 30,000 participants around the world. The initiative began in 1999 in Italy as a forum for a range of coffee professionals from baristas to growers looking to improve their business, and since then has focused on helping farmers learn practices that will be sustainable in the face of a changing climate. The initiative trains thousands of farmers a year in more than 20 countries. Training farmers sits at the “very center of our strategy,”

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