It might not be front-of-mind for most people as they reach for their morning brew, but sustainability in the coffee industry is rapidly moving up the agenda for governments, corporations, and ESG investors as its environmental impact becomes more apparent.

Although estimates vary, according to the UNESCO Institute for Water Education, around 39 gallons of water are needed to make just one cup of coffee. Meanwhile, increased demand for their produce has prompted a growing number of farmers to transition from the traditional shade method of growing coffee to sun-grown cultivation. Here, trees are cleared so that coffee plants gain more exposure to sunlight. Efficiency and production increase, but biodiversity inevitably suffers, and more pesticides are required.

Experts and activists are pushing back: “Whether you care about supporting the livelihoods of farmers, conserving biodiversity, maintaining productive and healthy environments, or enjoying a great-tasting cup of coffee,” says Amanda Rodewald, director of conservation science at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, “it all points to shade-grown coffee.”

Supporting Fairtrade and Sustainability

Many consumers are already aware of the social impact of coffee production and have made changes in response. In fact, “fairtrade” coffee was outselling conventional coffee by 22% as of 2019, according to Fairtrade America. Now, with sustainability in the coffee industry ever more in focus, a growing number of organizations are funding and supporting projects to improve it.

Last year, the US National Science Foundation awarded $3.4 million worth of grants to numerous groups embarking on a five-year sustainable coffee production project in Honduras. The grants are based on what is known as “convergence research,” which goes beyond interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary models. Instead, researchers from multiple specialties and other stakeholders work closely together to solve a critical scientific or societal problem.

Among the grantees is the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University. Caz Taylor, a professor in the department, is working with conservation biologists, ecologists, agronomists, farmers, indigenous peoples, social scientists, land managers, and engineers to carry out research that they hope will ultimately improve ultimately improve the sustainability of coffee production.

This will involve coordinating technological innovations including renewable-energy coffee bean dryers and wet mills that recycle coffee pulp and reduce water pollution. Economic development incentives will pay farmers to preserve forest through microcredit and training programs. There will be a particular emphasis on conserving water and on supporting female landowners and farmers.

Sustainability in the coffee industry is rapidly moving up the agenda for governments, corporations, and ESG investors as its environmental impact becomes more apparent.

Safeguarding the Environment and Protecting Farmers

In addition to the University of North Carolina Wilmington and Indiana University in Pennsylvania, two other grant recipients include Timothy Randhir of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, professor of environmental conservation, and David King of the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station. Through what they call a “convergence approach,” Randhir and his colleagues have developed a suite of extremely accurate models, collectively referred to as the Multi-Scale Ecosystem Framework.

These models analyze the various interactions between humans, the environment, and global economies in order to understand the effects, both locally and globally, of a variety of interventions. The aim is to enable farmers to earn a decent living while reducing carbon emissions and protecting local birdlife.

For ESG investors, these initiatives represent only a fraction of efforts to support sustainability and equity in the coffee industry. Indeed, many may find within their morning cup not just a perfect balance of taste but an even more powerful combination of ESG issues. Increasingly, these initiatives—and others like them—aim to produce competitive returns while safeguarding the environment and improving the wellbeing of local coffee producers as well as improving food security by strengthening food systems.

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