Blog Collaboration for the future of coffee and cocoa

A recent webinar brought together ambassadors, researchers, industry specialists, and a farmer to explore challenges and possibilities for two of the world’s favorite crops: coffee and cocoa.

Coffee and chocolate: where would we be without them? Besides occupying a special place in the average consumer’s daily routine and our culinary cultures, these two crops represent industries worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and are the main source of income for households across Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Of the 125 million coffee farmers and 50 million cacao farmers who depend on these crops, over 3/4 are estimated to be smallholder producers.

However, farmers are currently facing challenges on multiple fronts. Climate change, pests, and diseases have drastic implications for production. Many coffee farmers anticipate having to relocate their plots to higher altitudes, while others are abandoning the crop entirely. Most recently, the COVID-19 lockdown has decreased global demand for coffee and chocolate, destabilizing the market and further threatening farmers’ incomes. With this in mind, the Alliance hosted a recent webinar that asked:

  • Which tools and innovations can safeguard cocoa and coffee production?
  • What role does genetic diversity play in strengthening smallholders’ livelihoods?
  • How can we better support producers and connect them with consumers?

Setting the conversation

The webinar was part of the initiative “Mediterranean Diet’s Principles for Agenda 2030”, a series of thematic sessions promoted by the Italian Permanent Representation to the UN Agencies in Rome that aim to raise awareness on how the Mediterranean Diet can help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. The 15 speakers included representatives of the Italian and Swiss governments, FAO, UNESCO, the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO), International Coffee Organization (ICO), the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, as well as other research and industry organizations.

The conversation was initiated by moderator Romano De Vivo (Center for Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability at the University of Zurich), accompanied by comments from the participating ambassadors, beginning with Ambassador Vincenza Lomonaco (Italy):

Cocoa and coffee are two delicious elements of the culinary culture of the Mediterranean Diet, used daily in food manufacturing and in our kitchens. These important crops need to be protected against climate risks, pests and diseases.”

Juan Lucas Restrepo, Director General of the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, added:

As a Colombian national, cocoa and coffee make up an important part of my culture and central to my country’s economy. I grew up in the Andean mountains, within a coffee growing landscape that has changed dramatically. Many of these farms are no longer suitable for coffee, due to climate change, pests and diseases. Luckily some of this land has been transformed into cocoa, thanks to the social net, infrastructure and training common to both crops.”

How can we safeguard production?

Leaves affected by coffee rust. Credit: CIAT/N.Palmer

Over 60% of coffee species are under threat of extinction. Diseases such as coffee rust are increasingly decimating fields amidst heightened concerns for both farmers and consumers, as highlighted in a recent news article in The Atlantic. And with climate change, farmers have to adapt and adopt new measures- fast.

We must reverse the constant drain of nutrients and energy into a constant inflow; we are doing this through dynamic agroforestry.”

– Petra Heid (Chocolats Halba)

FAO recommends a step approach to sustainably optimize crop production through climate-smart solutions that prioritize farmer needs. Sandra Corsi (FAO) illustrated this with the hypothetical scenario of a farmer, “Makena”, who opts to integrate shade coffee and grow ground cover crops while preserving forest land. These practices help reduce erosion, weeds, water requirements, and greenhouse gas emissions. She noted that countries who promote farmers’ access to adapted planting materials, sustainable inputs, technologies (such as sustainable mechanization) and options for credit will be internationally competitive and more resilient to challenges.

Also stressing the importance of meeting farmers’ site-specific needs, Monika Schneider, from the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), added that integrated agroforestry systems could lead to higher yields while combatting diseases and redistributing risks.

How can we ensure that this results in long-term climate resilience? According to Alliance Managing Director Stephan Weise, we must: 1) map and better understand risks in producing countries, and 2) provide more options and incentives (such as digital platforms to identify suitable planting material) that can involve farmers in mitigation and adaptation.

The role of genetic diversity

A recurring theme was the importance of conserving and sustainably producing many diversified varieties of coffee and cacao, both for environmental and economic reasons.

Cocoa genetic diversity and its conservation can help small producers… protect crops from diseases, and contribute to the development of cocoa variety flavors.”

– Michele Nardella (ICCO)

A prime example is the Cocoa of Excellence (CoEx) Programme, which links producers to buyers, chocolate makers and consumers. Now in its 11th year, CoEx shows that such a multi-stakeholder platform can improve farmers’ living conditions through differentiated market opportunities that recognize superior quality cocoa and preserve flavors resulting from genetic diversity, “terroir” and know-how of the farmers.

Video courtesy of the CoEx Programme.

“Pricing is the most important thing”

Coffee exports are worth about USD $20 billion each year, representing essential sources of income for many producing countries. Besides supporting farmers’ households, coffee and cacao earnings also contribute to community infrastructure, such as schools. But, as economist Christoph Saenger (ICO) pointed out, the value chain is subject to fluctuating prices and reduced investments, leaving farmers vulnerable to poverty and instability.

Local smallholder farmers hold an informal coffee tasting in their village, La Florida, Colombia. Credit: CIAT/N.Palmer

Guatemalan coffee producer Jaime Freire offered insights as to how this is felt at the farmer level, noting that many have no choice but to migrate. According to Jaime, farmers can adapt to environmental pressures- “Climate change is not a big problem, it is a condition”- but they cannot continue growing without a fair market that supports farmers and workers: “pricing is the most important thing”.

Economic sustainability of coffee production is the most important issue. People should receive a good living wage.”

Mario Cerutti (European Coffee Federation).

Working together

Numerous speakers stressed that change is possible with greater awareness and international cooperation, as demonstrated by the ambassadors in attendance.

Italian Ambassador Giorgio Marrapodi noted that it is “time to take care of our planet,” and, after underlining the efforts made by the Italian Cooperation in order to help cocoa and coffee makers in Africa and South America, welcomed Switzerland’s support in promoting healthy diets, lifestyles, and production. Swiss Ambassador Pio Wennubst pointed out that the introduction and widespread popularity of coffee and cocoa in Europe is the result of migration, and the linking of tradition with innovation, which must continue. This corresponded with Ambassador Massimo Riccardo’s (UNESCO) commentary on safeguarding crop and culinary heritage, especially through engagement with younger generations.

Reflecting on the forthcoming International Year of Plant Health, Riccardo Mazzucchelli (FAO) commented that we have to continue raising awareness for the relevance of healthy plants to human health, now more than ever.

If put into practice, the lessons learned from this collaboration can help us emerge from COVID-19 with a more environmentally and economically sustainable value chain. With climate-smart agronomic practices and technologies at the farm level, strategic planning and investments at the national level, and market cooperation at the international level, we can all continue to enjoy and benefit from coffee and cocoa for decades to come.

Watch the webinar

View the webinar announcement and speaker list here.