Coffee sustainability is a tricky thing to define. Much the like the term “specialty,” the more you try to define it, the more elusive the concept becomes. I’d rather leave it open-ended, and make room for the possibility that even once the right words are found, there will still be something more to pursue. Still, it’s easy to get hung up on the question, “what is sustainable coffee?”
One reason it’s difficult to define sustainable coffee is, in truth, it’s hard to say decisively that coffee as an industry is not sustainable. We can certainly see sustainability challenges and even risks in the coffee sector. At a macro-level, the world is readying to feed a population of 9+ billion—demand for agricultural commodities is rising faster than supply, which may very well bleed over into coffee. Water and phosphorous resources are strained. Challenges for coffee farmers are well documented, namely around food insecurity, and the next generation of farmers are migrating to cities. But some shrug all of that off—it’s a long time from now, coffee doesn’t face agricultural competition because of the altitude at which it is grown, and who knows what breakthrough is on the horizon? There are many reasons not to pursue sustainability solutions—the issues are complex, murky, and currently, undefinable. And, there is a lot of coffee out there at the moment.
Still, there are many people and companies pursuing sustainable coffee because they see what gets lost in the macro-view: livelihood challenges, soil degradation, water strain, land use pressures, and rust disease. They don’t need sustainability defined, don’t disbelieve the increasing challenges of the world, and aren’t waiting for more data points. In many ways, they just look at the world in front of them. In coffee, they look at a market that has been hovering around a $1.00 per pound and question, “How is that sustainable?” In countries like Costa Rica, it’s clearly not sustainable, as evidenced by all the beautiful new condos and commercial developments that are steadily taking over former coffee farms in prime growing regions. In other areas, where land and labor are more abundant, coffee is more likely to hang on. It’s hard to predict the time frame, but at least for the foreseeable future, coffee may be technically sustainable in these areas. A farmer may stay in coffee regardless of market conditions, riding the highs and lows as he always has. However, it is unlikely that farmer will stay focused on coffee. The lower and more prolonged the lows, the more incentive there is to seek alternatives. It’s not uncommon for a farmer to diversify and take other jobs. I visited a group of farmers around Lake Atitlá0n in Guatemala and all the men were day laboring while the women picked coffee, took care of children and elderly parents, tended the garden, etc. In this scenario, coffee becomes a secondary activity or moves even further down the list of things for a family to do.