Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Thomas Schueneman headshot

Keurig Helps Farmers Cope with 'Coffee Rust'


La Roya -- to an untrained ear those words almost sound like a new blend of premium coffee. Far from it.

"The rust” is shorthand for coffee leaf rust or Hemileia vastatrix, a devastating fungus that attacks coffee plants and often threatens the plants' survival.

Fungal spores first show on an infected plant as yellowish-brown spots on the underside of coffee leaves, eventually turning rust-colored red. As the disease progresses, infected leaves fall off the plant. If left untreated, the fungus chokes off the plant by leaving it unable to photosynthesize.

First discovered in East Africa in 1861, coffee leaf rust destroyed the crop on the island of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and is credited as one of the reasons the British drink tea. The disease soon spread to Southeast Asia and coffee-growing regions in south, central and western Africa. La Roya finally reached the western hemisphere in 1970, when an outbreak was discovered in Bahia, Brazil. Coffee leaf rust is now found in every coffee-growing region in the world.

Despite its global spread, coffee rust has typically been manageable and controllable, if still a serious nuisance. When treated quickly, otherwise healthy plants in good soil can survive the disease. Nonetheless, the U.S. Department of State considers the current outbreak of La Roya as the worst ever seen in Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. Losses have topped $1 billion, costing hundreds of thousands of jobs and forcing many to abandon the coffee-farming life altogether in search of a better life elsewhere.

“In some years it’s worse than others and in some geographies it’s worse than others,” says Lindsey Bolger, VP of coffee sourcing and excellence for Keurig Green Mountain. “We have seen an entire population of coffee obliterated, truly destroyed and wiped out by this particular disease.” Never has the disease been "quite as impactful in terms of coffee production and coffee farmer livelihood.”

Over the last couple of years, coffee rust has threatened the livelihoods of up to 14 million people. What is different this time? Why has leaf rust taken such a toll on an entire coffee growing region?

Migrating microbes, coffee prices and soil health

Climate change is already pushing many pests and diseases into higher elevations, including hemileia vastatrix -- La Roya is on the move. Rising temperatures, particularly rising minimum nighttime temperatures, heavy rainfall and increased humidity all contribute to the fungus reaching "further and further up into higher elevations where it was relatively unknown,” Bolger says.

According to the nonprofit social investment fund Root Capital, 80 percent of the world coffee supply comes from small farms, or 25 million farmers that depend on coffee for their livelihoods.

There is little buffer insulating a small-scale farmer from the vagaries of the world coffee market. Low coffee prices threaten the ability of small farmers to feed their families, let alone maintain optimal conditions for their plants. The inherent risk of the episodic rise and fall of prices is reinforced by the increasing cost of “inputs,” explains Bolger. A “higher cost of labor, higher cost of fertilizers, fuels and other tools that farmers [need] to really stay on top of good farm management."

"Low coffee prices really challenged farmers’ ability to maintain good soil health and good plant health in the years prior to this outbreak,” says Bolger. Without regular inputs of phosphorous, nitrogen and other nutrients, “The soil becomes depleted," she says. "The plants therefore become weakened and more susceptible to the standard list of challenges and diseases. Then suddenly there’s a high frequency of these rust spores in that particular area, and the plant easily becomes just overwhelmed and is no longer able to defend itself.”

As low market prices and higher costs gnawed away at income, soil health slipped into a slow protracted decline -- making an effective response to coffee rust even more difficult.

“While the evidence of soil depletion and coffee plant health was perhaps less visible in the previous three of four years,” Bolger says. "The real indicator of how weakened the plants were really surfaced as a function of this rust outbreak."

Mix a slump in commodity prices, depleted soil and climate change, and you have the makings of a La Roya outbreak more devastating than any since its discovery in the 19th century. That "bottomless" cup of coffee most of us enjoy, to the tune of about 1.6 billion cups every day, depends on how well small farmers cope with these converging challenges.

A resilient supply chain -- from coffee plant to coffee cup -- begins with healthy plants, good soil and a thriving farming community that's resilient to climate change.

Laying a resilient foundation with Fair Trade

Fair Trade is an important component of supply chain resiliency, providing more income and better access to essential services for participating farmers.  “It’s through the Fair Trade model that we've been able to activate our interest in and act on our concern for coffee farmers,” Bolger says. "Because we have a preexisting network that gives us access to thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of coffee farming families who are within our Fair Trade network, we can very quickly engage and respond in a way that is most appropriate and effective."

When coffee prices bottomed out, "we saw that those who had engaged with us through Fair Trade were much better able to address the challenges they were facing,” says Bolger's colleague, Colleen Popkin, senior manager of sustainability, who is responsible for Keurig's Coffee Supply Chain Outreach.

“So we saw that Fair Trade farmers were more resilient than those in the conventional supply chain. But we believe we really need to go beyond Fair Trade in terms of the support because the challenges [the farmers] are facing are so severe.”

Beyond Fair Trade

The Fair Trade model works, but it isn't perfect. It doesn't reach all farmers or always offer a complete solution for those who do benefit from it. Bolger explains that “… Oftentimes it doesn't address the entire cost of not only good farm management, but reinvestment in soil and plant health [and] investment in coffee community and family wellbeing. There is often a gap."

A more comprehensive system of outreach to rebuild and maintain thriving farming communities is built on the spirit and success of Fair Trade through new programs and relationships. Going "beyond Fair Trade" requires commitment and cooperation among all stakeholders -- from farmers to industry, NGOs, research organizations and government.

Triple bottom line: In it for the long haul

A key principle of triple-bottom-line thinking is understanding the broad scope and long-term view of sustainable business. In the coffee business, it means responding to the immediate needs of farmers while considering the health and resilience of the environment, in order to sustain those farms and communities for the long term.

Keurig defines its commitment to this broad and long view of sustaining its supply chain:

"The agricultural communities within our supply chains face a daunting set of interconnected challenges, including limited access to food, clean water, health care, education and alternative economic opportunities. Our broad-scale, holistic outreach efforts cover a wide range of needs. We offer immediate aid for disaster relief and recovery, such as providing support for rebuilding after a natural disaster. But we also look beyond the farm to fund longer-term community development that enables resiliency in the face of complex social and environmental challenges."

In keeping with this commitment, Keurig expanded its outreach programs “... that invest in our supply chain for the long-term supply of sustainably grown coffee, and also for the quality of life and livelihoods of farmers," says Popkin. "And there have been several programs that we supported through that fund to help build resilience of coffee farmers in our supply chain, especially to address La Roya.”

Coffee Farmer Resilience Initiative

Also in 2013, the Coffee Farmer Resilience Initiative launched in partnership with Root Capital, the Skoll Foundation and the Inter-American Development Bank. Keurig provided $1.9 million of the initial $7 million program.

The Coffee Farmer Resilience Initiative supports farmers through local, on-the-ground cooperatives by allowing them means to provide expanded services, "especially credit for long-term, renovation loans which are traditionally risky for social lenders." Popkin explains.

"With the changing climate in this region, it’s difficult to provide agricultural loans on a long-term basis. So, this initiative allowed Root Capital some guarantees to be able to unlock capital to lend to farming organizations that could then lend to their members to rehabilitate and renovate their coffee farms."

The initiative has grown significantly since its launch. And the effort to ensure a resilient coffee supply chain attracted more organizations ready to help, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Starbucks and Cooperative Coffees.  Root Capital reports that, as of 2014, the fund has grown to $23 million, supporting an estimated 40,000 coffee farmers in the region.

Working with farmers: Adapt, mitigate, engage

Keurig takes a hands-on approach to supply chain resiliency efforts that goes beyond financial investments. Part of the foundation of this effort is the Climate Change Policy that guides the company’s strategy to address the changing climate that has made coffee rust an increasingly difficult challenge for farmers. This policy includes three primary components: adaptation, mitigation and engagement:

Adaptation.  "The greatest climate change risk we face relates to the impact on our agricultural products and the communities in which they are produced," the company said. Therefore, the company pledged to:

  • Integrate adaptation tactics into its sourcing guidelines

  • Support industry standards that address climate change mitigation and adaptation practices

  • Provide adaptation and resilience training for its farmers to improve yields, optimize water use, diversify crops and adjust to changing local weather conditions

  • Invest in research to develop different varieties of coffee plants that are better suited for changing climate and weather conditions

  • Integrate climate change adaptation with ongoing efforts to improve livelihoods among its farmers and farming communities
Mitigation.  "Reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions throughout our value chain benefits our bottom line and contributes to the shared effort to reduce climate change risks," the company said. It pledged to:

  • Develop a full understanding of the greenhouse gas emissions across its entire value chain, from farm and factory, to operations and logistics, to product use, to product end of life/disposal/recycling

  • Continuously reduce greenhouse gas emissions across its value chain, focusing most effort and investment where the opportunity for emissions reduction is greatest
Engagement.  "Working collaboratively with others is the only way to have significant and lasting impact on climate change." The company pledged to:

  • Engage with governments to advance the establishment of public policies that encourage significant reductions in GHG emissions, improve resilience and support adaptation

  • Work with other companies in the food/beverage sector to align efforts, to maximize our collective impact

  • Collaborate with NGOs, leveraging their expertise and providing them with the resources they need to do their work

  • Communicate openly with stakeholders about progress and challenge

Supplier guidelines and 2020 supply chain goals

In 2007, Keurig developed the Responsible Sourcing Supplier Guidelines. These guidelines are designed  to strengthen the social and environmental role of Keurig's own operation, as well as the operations of its suppliers.

To support and further these guidelines, in 2012 Keurig announced an ambitious set of 2020 Resilient Supply Chain Goals, including:

  • Engage 1 million people in its manufacturing and agriculture supply chains to significantly improve their livelihoods

  • Source 100 percent of primary agricultural and manufactured products according to established Keurig Green Mountain Responsible Sourcing Guidelines
“Through our responsible sourcing program we’re building more traceability and transparency into those parts of our supply chain that are not Fair Trade, so we understand where that coffee is coming from and how we can support those farmers," said Popkin.

All of this effort, planning, collaboration and vision is how Keurig provides solutions that help keep farmers farming.

Sustained effort, long-term vision

When businesses like Starbucks, Keurig Green Mountain and others collaborate in an effort to help small coffee farmers succeed, it's the real deal -- not another greenwash campaign to look good environmentally, but with little or no real impact.

Led by companies such as Keurig, this industry-wide effort to adopt a comprehensive long-term framework of resiliency makes apparent the real potential of the triple bottom line in business. For the coffee industry there is little choice, as essential to a successful business as a positive P&L statement. Indeed, the time has come for all business and industry to adopt triple-bottom-line thinking, or move aside to let others lead the way into a sustainable future resilient to inevitable change.

Nobody would have wished such adversity on small coffee farmers, especially anyone involved in the coffee business. After all, you can't sell coffee without coffee beans. The devastation to thousands of families and their livelihoods is tragic. But, as Popkin explains, from tragedy comes the opportunity to build a path toward cooperation, partnership and, ultimately, resilience -- even in the face of climate change, disease and unpredictable market forces.

"It’s a broader, industry-wide effort and demonstrates an evolution in our response to these issues," says Popkin. "... We understand that we need to collaborate on a challenge that is as great as this latest coffee rust epidemic."

La Roya has dealt a hard blow in recent years. It is one more example of the very real and immediate impact of climate change. It has also galvanized the effort to mitigate, adapt, engage and join in a cooperative effort overcome the challenges ahead.

Images courtesy of Keurig and CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture via flickr

Thomas Schueneman headshot

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

Read more stories by Thomas Schueneman