World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works

Coffee cherries laid out to dry

How Working with Coffee Farmers Gave Me an Appreciation for Bananas, and Smallholder Challenges in the Face of Climate Change

  • Date: 24 October 2023
  • Author: Katherine Devine

While I may have visited my first coffee farm in Costa Rica while studying abroad, I fell in love with coffee production a few years later in the Dominican Republic. Assigned by the Peace Corps to a small town, Juncalito, I was fortunate to be placed with extremely kind people, in a stunning landscape with a perfect climate, and given the pleasure of working with the Juncalito Coffee Producers’ Association. At this formative time in my life, I was privileged to experience firsthand the challenges faced by smallholder farmers and their tenacity, love for the earth, and truly delicious coffee.

Katherine Devine

When I learned last year that my team at WWF would be working on a series of papers on measuring and mitigating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across key commodities, and that coffee would be one of them, I jumped at the chance to work on the project.

During my time in the DR, I saw firsthand how climate conditions can affect productivity and quality, making the difference between earning more for specialty coffee and selling for rock bottom commodity prices. I was curious to dive into WWF’s research to learn more about GHG emissions in coffee production, and what could be done to support farmers facing the direct impacts of climate change.

WWF’s research found that the GHG emissions in a cup of coffee, from farm to cup, ranges widely, from 3-to-40+ kg CO2e/kg roast coffee (RC).¹ Not surprisingly, when it comes to GHG emissions, land use change (LUC), specifically deforestation or conversion, is the biggest driver of emissions in coffee. It can account for nearly half a cup’s footprint, or more, depending on the land-use history of a particular location.

With climate change both reducing and shifting coffee production locations, LUC is a risk that is not going away. One way companies and governments can help mitigate the risk of LUC is to provide incentives for farmers to expand production onto degraded lands rather than deforesting additional land. Incentives are critical in this area, as rehabilitation can be costly and most coffee production is done by smallholder farmers who lack the capital for such investments.

Juncalito Coffee Producers’ Association

Beyond land use change, on-farm emissions vary considerably depending on what practices are implemented, but fertilizer application is a significant contributor. It not only impacts GHG emissions, but overapplication can also lead to runoff into water sources, causing pollution.

Some farmers in the Juncalito Coffee Producers’ Association made organic fertilizer, using the coffee cherries that are removed to reveal the bean within. This organic fertilizer can help reduce the methane — a potent greenhouse gas — that would be emitted were the cherries left to rot.

Though the Association had the support of dedicated agronomists funded by the Dominican government, not all farmers applied such methods. Reasons varied, including cost, willingness to learn new methods, not enough time, not enough dedicated space, and more.

Improved education on organic fertilizers, or on appropriate application of non-organic fertilizers, could help reduce overapplication, thereby reducing emissions from fertilizer production as well as pollution from runoff. Soil testing to better understand the specific needs in different parts of a farm could also go a long way toward appropriate application but can be costly.

Juncalito, Dominican Republic

During my time in Juncalito, some of my favorite farmers would often drop off a bunch of bananas at my house, using the universal language of sharing food, which always made me feel welcome. These farmers were implementing agroforestry practices by using shade trees, of which banana is a common option. Agroforestry practices such as these have the potential to sequester additional carbon on farms, while also diversifying crops for farmers and enabling greater resilience in the face of climate shocks.

While the science varies on these practices in terms of how much carbon can be sequestered, and the degree to which resilience to shocks can be quantified, they are a means for farmers to produce coffee alongside food they also use to feed their families.

Addressing these issues, and further sources of GHG emissions noted in WWF’s report, is challenging. With most coffee produced by smallholder farmers, regional approaches also need to be considered. Change does not always come quickly, and the order is tall. But so, too, is our appetite for coffee.

[1] Greenhouse gases emissions are measured by kilogram of CO2 equivalent per kilogram of product (in this case, roasted coffee).

Katherine Devine is the director of business case development for WWF's Markets Institute.