The role of coffee for global sustainable development

At the Global Coffee Forum, which was held in Milan on September 30th and October 1st, Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University  and one of the world’s leading experts on economic development, held a fascinating talk, during which he discussed the coffee industry and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). These 17 new Goals, which supersede the Millennial Development Goals, will be in force from Jan. 1, 2016 until Dec. 31, 2030 and will be the framework for global cooperation, global financing and dialogue at the diplomatic level. They bridge the three dimensions of sustainable development, social inclusion and environmental sustainability.

Of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, five in particular are directly related to the coffee industry:

  • No Poverty, calls for the end of extreme poverty by 2030 (SDG 1);
  • Zero Hunger, regards proper nutrition and also calls for sustainable agriculture. Agricultural is the #1 greenhouse gas emitting sector; it has the biggest impact on biodiversity, climate change, habitat and water use, and is also the most vulnerable sector to climate change (SDG 2);
  • Decent Work and Economic Growth, calls for every industry to ensure the entire supply chain is providing decent work, labor standards and labor rights (SDG 8);
  • Climate Action, involves controlling human-induced climate change and adapting to inevitable, ongoing climate change (SDG 13);
  • Life on Land, calls for sustainable terrestrial ecosystems (SDG 15).
Jeffrey Sachs
Jeffrey Sachs

The SDG agenda was gaveled on Sept. 25th and the next step is COP 21, the UN Framework Convention which will be held in Paris from December 1st to the 10th. There is a good chance for success because, for the first time, China and the U.S. have finally decided to work together; President Xi and President Obama have signed an accord to reach an agreement in Paris.

Within this framework, the coffee industry must communicate with the world because it is more in contact with consumers than just about any other industry, since so many people drink coffee. We must convey the message that climate change is threatening our industry and that we are working to alleviate the threats.

Over the past year, illycaffè and the Earth Institute have been studying the “Climate & Coffee” evidence and before the end of the year a report will be issued. This report is based on a thorough literature review and on original research of climate and crop data regarding the impact of climate change on coffee. Some of the conclusions are that climate change will reduce production in the coffee sector and will significantly affect major regions, with agronomic and ecological impact from warming. Climate change is not just about warming; it is also instability, meaning more extreme events. Coffee crops are vulnerable to very-high-temperature days, there are more droughts all over the world, and simply migrating cultivation to higher elevations or toward the poles from the equator cannot offset the current location losses. The good news is that adaptation and resilience is possible, up to a point. Shade-grown coffee is a major theme for everybody; it is cooler in the shade and this would have a direct temperature-productivity effect. Lastly, the coffee industry lacks critical information. Apps on smartphones could provide GIS geographic reference data, updated by small farmers with information on how much they plant, their yields, coffee varieties, data on rust, bores or other pests, and other major events. Within a few years, if all major buyers/companies work with coffee associations locally on designing the right apps and training famers to enter basic data, this data revolution could become a reality.

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals is part political will, part public awareness, and part scientific expertise and knowledge to create global reach. The Climate & Coffee study could be part of this global problem-solving initiative by making contact with the agriculture departments of local universities in the coffee producing countries to spread ideas and information.

Join the discussion