Will coffee become the world’s first 100% sustainable agricultural product?


Growing coffee often leads to deforestation. Thankfully there’s a new initiative aiming to prove that it doesn’t have to be that way.

A new initiative called the Sustainable Coffee Challenge aims to change the way the coffee industry operates.

Set up by Conservation International, the Sustainable Coffee Challenge aims to transform coffee production, moving both specialty and mainstream producers toward sustainability.

The initiative will bring together industry, conservation and agricultural development partners to develop a common framework for sustainability in the coffee sector.

The initial plan of action will be unveiled to coincide with the 4th World Coffee Conference next March in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.​​

“We need a common definition of sustainability for the coffee sector,​” said Peter Seligmann, Chairman and CEO of Conservation International. “This will require commitments by roasters to support increased demand for sustainability. It will also require improved measurement of how far the sector has come in the sustainability journey — and just how far we have to go.”

Seligmann founded Conservation International nearly thirty years ago to identify and protect biologically diverse places around the world.

Speaking in a radio interview with PRI Seligmann acknowledges that the biggest obstacle for the Sustainable Coffee Challenge is convincing producers to join the movement.

“To go from non-sustainable coffee to sustainable coffee requires an investment of money and it requires time,” Seligmann says. “Most of these [coffee] growers actually work in co-ops, and the challenge is getting the co-ops to agree that this is the transition they want to make. … What’s going to motivate them is knowing there is a buyer for the coffee they grow.”

Shade-grown coffee is the sustainable model, Seligmann says. Coffee grown in sun is typically produced by clear-cutting forest and planting the coffee in its place.

“When you clear-cut a forest you destroy the biodiversity, you put CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, you lose soil and you engage in industrial grade agriculture, which maximizes the pesticides and chemicals and reduces the benefits to society.”

Seligmann’s focus is now on further ways to get businesses and societies to understand that it is in their own self-interest to take care of the world’s natural systems.

“If you go into a forest and you log it, and your revenues come from logging, you get one cut and you’re done,” Seligmann points out. “That’s not creating jobs. That’s basically destroying ecological systems, destroying your source of biodiversity, your fresh water and it’s emitting CO2. It’s a terrible strategy and creates poverty and unhappiness.”

“If you say, ‘We’re going to grow coffee beneath that forest,’ then you have a forest that’s there forever, you have jobs from coffee production that are there forever, you have better education, you have better livelihoods and you have more stable families.”

“In other words, protecting forests is the smartest way to reduce emissions and to create jobs for nations.”

Check out the full PRI radio interview with Peter Seligmann here.