How a collapse in the world coffee market spawned a scientific force for good
February 18, 2015 | By Richard Doughty on behalf of COSA
Just over a decade ago millions of coffee growers were facing disaster. In three years the price of the world’s most valuable tropical commodity had crashed by over 60% to a 30-year low of 45 cents (31p) per pound (0.45kg). Tens of thousands of families went without food and education, communities became poorer, and developing countries lost vital export revenues. Meanwhile, the international companies dominating coffee trading and roasting continued to make healthy profits.
In 2003 one year after global leaders met in South Africa to review results of the UN’s Rio Earth summit on sustainable development, the Sustainable Coffee Partnership was born. This was the result of intense discussions about how to make coffee growing more sustainable and protect farmers of the world’s most traded crop from the dire consequences of an unstable market.
But there was a big problem – a lack of any internationally acceptable way of gauging how successful sustainability measures were. To convince farmers, producer organisations, industry research bodies and government policymakers to invest precious time and money in new farming methods needed hard scientific evidence showing which new methods were worth adopting.
To address these issues, the Committee On Sustainability Assessment (COSA), was launched in 2007 as a non-profit institution. It now works with almost 40 partner organisations, striving together to achieve a better understanding of sustainability in agriculture.
The committee faced a formidable task: to fill a glaring knowledge gap in why some sustainability measures worked and others failed. It also had to persuade all its partners and leading development agencies to accept just one shared, holistic definition of sustainability: “An enduring and balanced approach to economic activity, environmental responsibility and social progress” or, more succinctly: people, planet and profit.
COSA had to hit the ground running. Not only was coffee looking vulnerable but so too was cocoa, another major crop produced by small farmers. Only three years ago, cocoa recovered from its own dramatic price collapse in 2000, in part due to years of over-production. And over the past year, as world demand for chocolate keeps pace with growing affluence in emerging economies, prices have shot up by 25% but are still, in many areas inadequate to make cocoa farming viable.
To complicate matters further, in the late 1980s cocoa farmers received 16% of a chocolate bar’s final value. But in 2013, according to the Fairtrade Foundation, growers in west Africa, the world‘s largest cocoa-producing region, were seeing just 3.5%-6.4% as manufacturers saw their share rise from 56% to 70%.
COSA had to come up with recognisable measures that could be used by farmers and valued by governments to improve crops in very different global environments. It had to be neutral and highly credible in the huge task of overcoming outdated farming practices. COSA had to begin to streamline people’s perceptions of sustainability. For instance, by 2012 there were 435 “ecolabels”, all claiming some aspect of sustainability.
As an independent, neutral organisation, COSA has produced research showing, for instance, that it would be more lucrative for farmers in Vietnam (the world’s second largest coffee producer) to invest in smarter fertilisation (i.e. less) rather than further increasing coffee yields and supplies. In Tanzania it has revealed the alarming difference in school grades between children whose families participate in sustainability projects and those operating outside these.
It has helped debunk the myths about women being unable to farm land properly with compelling evidence to the contrary. In Colombia it has linked up with Farmer Brothers, one of the leading American coffee companies, and helped it better understand the needs of its suppliers and make more informed investment decisions.
COSA’s data is encouraging producer organisations to think smarter, share results among their peers and improve farming practices to be more sustainable. Farmers might, for example, alter the cropping system to increase resilience to climate change or diversify partly into other crops to better manage their market risk.
“It’s not just about economic or environmental or social factors. They all intertwine,” says COSA’s president, Daniele Giovannucci. “We’re evolving new, more accurate ways of looking at very complex issues of sustainability and doing that in ways that can be practically applied in the difficult conditions of developing countries.”
In fact, over the past four years, COSA has carried out more than 20,000 surveys in 15 countries at farm and village level using sophisticated fieldwork and analytic techniques. This vast amount of valuable data that COSA acquires enables it to compare scientific results and understand trends over time and across countries. And there have been some remarkable findings. For example, data comparing cocoa and coffee results from a number of different countries between 2008 and 2011, reveals that farmers participating in sustainability initiatives had 14% better yields, 7% higher income and 33% more use of soil conservation practices than farmers who did not.
“We’re not imposing a score or some ideal, instead COSA is at its best when working closely with organisations to help them better understand and manage their sustainability choices,” says Giovannucci. COSA’s growing portfolio includes some of the world’s most profitable food companies and leading development agencies alongside local groups working at grassroots level. “It’s taken eight years to create a world-class, scientific approach to help us understand and make smarter choices in our farming systems, local communities and environments. It’s time, right now, to harvest these results”.