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Russell's Lighthouse

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Starbucks concerned world coffee supply is threatened by climate change

Published on 13 October 2011 by The Guardian



Starbucks in New York. Photograph: Lily Bowers/Reuters


Starbucks sustainability chief Jim Hanna says the coffee giant has been pushing the Obama administration to little result


Forget about super-sizing into the trenta a few years from now: Starbucks is warning of a threat to world coffee supply because of climate change.

In a telephone interview with the Guardian, Jim Hanna, the company’s sustainability director, said its farmers were already seeing the effects of a changing climate, with severe hurricanes and more resistant bugs reducing crop yields.

The company is now preparing for the possibility of a serious threat to global supplies. “What we are really seeing as a company as we look 10, 20, 30 years down the road – if conditions continue as they are – is a potentially significant risk to our supply chain, which is the Arabica coffee bean,” Hanna said.

It was the second warning in less than a month of a threat to a food item many people can’t live without.

New research from the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture warned it would be too hot to grow chocolate in much of the Ivory Coast and Ghana, the world’s main producers, by 2050.

Hanna is to travel to Washington on Friday to brief members of Congress on climate change and coffee at an event sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The coffee giant is part of a business coalition that has been trying to push Congress and the Obama administration to act on climate change – without success, as Hanna acknowledged.

The coalition, including companies like Gap, are next month launching a new campaign – showcasing their own action against climate change – ahead of the release of a landmark science report from the UN’s IPCC.

Hanna told the Guardian the company’s suppliers, who are mainly in Central America, were already experiencing changing rainfall patterns and more severe pest infestations.

Even well-established farms were seeing a drop in crop yield, and that could well discourage growers from cultivating coffee in the future, further constricting supply, he said. “Even in very well established coffee plantations and farms, we are hearing more and more stories of impacts.”

These include: more severe hurricanes, mudslides and erosion, variation in dry and rainy seasons.

Hanna said the company was working with local producers to try to cushion them from future changes.

“If we sit by and wait until the impacts of climate change are so severe that is impacting our supply chain then that puts us at a greater risk,” he said. “From a business perspective we really need to address this now, and to look five, 10, and 20 years down the road.”



The ‘Green Dragon’ Slayers: How the Religious Right and the Corpora... (pdf  here)


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This map shows the overlap between key coffee-growing regions and the 34 biodiversity hotspots – where biological diversity is richest and most threatened.

People first discovered coffee in the hotspots of eastern Africa, where many wild cousins of the domestic plant remain as an integral part of the natural forest community. The conditions required for coffee to thrive overlap with many regions around the world where conservation action is a high priority. Today coffee is grown in at least 16 of the 34 hotspots.

It has become increasingly clear that these extraordinary areas face an insidious threat in climate change. Climate change is disrupting temperature and precipitation levels in coffee producing regions and will continue to foster unpredictable harvests across the world. The effects of climate change have the potential to significantly impact both the livelihoods of coffee farmers and the broader environment.

Learn more about CI and Starbucks or find out more about shade-grown coffee.


What is shade grown coffee?

FEBRUARY 6, 2006

Coffee (Coffea sp.) is a small understory tree or shrub, and has traditionally been grown amongst forest trees, in the shade. Various studies indicate that arabica coffee has the highest yields under 35 to 65% shade. In addition, growing coffee under shade also discourages weed growth, may reduce pathogen infection, protect the crop from frost, and helps to increase numbers of pollinators which results in better fruit set. Coffee grown in the shade takes long to ripen and is often thought to taste better because the long ripening times contribute to complex flavors.

However, in order to produce faster, higher yields and prevent the spread of coffee leaf rust (Hemileia vastatrix), many coffee plantations began to grow coffee under sunnier conditions. The fewer shade trees that are in coffee plantations, the less biodiversity there is in those plantations.

This loss of biodiversity, especially in birds, has led conscientious consumers to look for “shade grown” coffee.  However, coffee is grown under a continuum of conditions, from rustic or traditional, to full sun, and these “shades of shade” are not all equal when it comes to the health of ecosystems. Unfortunately, there is no official definition of “shade grown,” so coffee so labeled may be grown under what are technically shady conditions, but which are little better full  sun.

It is important to understand the various levels of growing coffee under shade. This lists the five most typical categories, from the most desirable, traditional growing method, to the least diverse, most modern and technified method.

  • Rustic. Often used on small family farms. Coffee is grown in the existing forest with little alteration of native vegetation. Tree species are diverse, with an average of 25 species. Shade strata (layers of vegetation) three or more. Shade cover = 70-100%.
  • Traditional polyculture. Coffee is grown under a combination of native forest trees and planted tree and plant species, including fruit and vegetables both for the farmer and for market, fuel wood, medicinal plants, etc. Common tree species under which coffee is frequently grown include Inga, Grevillea, Acacia,Erythrina, and Gliricidia. Shade cover = 60-90%.
  • Commercial polyculture. More trees removed in order to increase the number of coffee plants, and shade is provided mostly by planted timber and fruit trees. Canopy trees are regularly pruned, and epiphytes are typically removed. More often ivolves use of fertilizers and pesticides due to the lack of vegetative cover which helps prevent loss of soil nutrients, etc. Typically only two vegetation layers, the canopy, and the coffee. Shade cover 30-60%.
  • Shaded monoculture. Dense plantings of coffee under an overstory of only one or two tree species (usually Inga), which are heavily pruned. Epiphytes are removed. Shade cover = 10-30%.
  • Full sun. Lacks a tree canopy, or has a few isolated trees. No shade cover.

And here is a diagram from a paper by Patricia Moguel and Victor Toledo [1] to help you visualize the categories:

As you can see, coffee grown in a shaded monoculture could technically be labeled “shade grown,” but it would probably not be what the consumer, concerned about biodiversity, is looking for.

The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has developed standards that are targeted specifically at shade management and preserving biodiversity; their certification is called “Bird-Friendly” (this is a trademarked term and should always carry theSmithsonian seal). More on their criteria here. The Rainforest Alliance has a certification program for coffee that has an array of environmental standards, although shade cultivation is not a requirement. Their optional criteria is be compared to the Bird Friendly criteria here.

There are pros and cons to the certification process, including the cost to the farmers and roasters, and problems with applying one-size-fits-all biodiversity criteria to different regions. Some roasters offer shade coffee that is not certified, but evaluated in various ways. Some say they use independent auditors, or visit the farms themselves. I don’t know how many, if any, of these evaluators have experience in actually assessing biodiversity, from a scientific viewpoint.

Smithsonian also provides a thorough history of coffee growing methods.

[1] Biodiversity Conservation in Traditional Coffee Systems of Mexico. 1999.Conservation Biology 13:11–21.

It looks like there are solutions - shade, new countries, higher elevations



As part of my Sustainable Design (Fall2008) class, I interviewed Edwin Martinez, 3rd generation coffee farmer from Finca Vista Hermosa, a specialty coffee farm known for its award winning coffee.  This research, combined with secondary research about coffee farming, led to a single factor life cycle assessment (LCA) using the Eco-Indicator 99 tool.


The study looked at the environmental impact of growing, processing and transporting coffee from when it is planted on the farm to when it arrives at a roaster’s facilities in the United States.  The results, presented in a paper, showed that more than 90% of the environmental impact of growing, processing, and transporting unroasted coffee to a roaster in Boston, MA was due to the impact of transportation.  In addition to my quantitative LCA, I also performed a qualitative assessment of the local impact of coffee farms.  This assessment looked at contaminants in waste water, toxins present in coffee processing techniques, and further analyzed the transportation utilized within the coffee production life cycle. The final version of my paper is available here.

In Spring 2009, the results of this study were combined with my earlier work on the environmental impact of espresso brewing and further research on coffee roasting and transportation to yield an LCA analyzing the impact from seed to cup.  The results showed that for coffee grown at Finca Vista Hermosa, 95% of the environmental impact occurred in the country of consumption.  While there was no single phase that accounted for the majority of the impact, it was very clear that the transportation, brewing, and roasting phases all played large roles while the Growing and Processing phase has virtually no impact (1%).

Based on looking at the overall system of coffee production, several heuristics were developed to help coffee professionals understand the impact areas.  Additionally a concept for coffee roasters and importers on how to reduce the impact associated with transportation was presented.  Below is the final version of the poster presented at undergraduate research conferences at Duke University and Harvard University in Spring 2009.

There are two further directions I plan to take this work.  First is to add in a comparison to more traditional coffee farms, to see whether the impact breakdown greatly changes.  Second is to add in the impact of to go cups in coffee shops.


Coffee PosterLCA of Coffee Poster(PDF)

LCA of Coffee Production- Paper (PDF)




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