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Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Rwanda, Mexico Seek to Make Coffee the World's Most Sustainable Product


Nearly 9,000 miles apart, Rwanda and Mexico are the first countries to join the Sustainable Coffee Challenge -- which aims to increase the demand for sustainable coffee. Representatives from both countries joined with Conservation International (CI) at European Development Days to announce their partnership in the challenge.

CI launched the challenge back in December at the U.N. climate negotiations in Paris. It was intended as a call-to-action for the sector to make coffee the world’s first entirely sustainable agricultural product. Starbucks came aboard as the first partner. A total of 18 partners signed on by the time the challenge launched at COP21. The number is now up to 48, including the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), Ceres, Fairtrade America and Keurig Green Mountain.

The challenge brings partners together from the coffee industry, conservation, agricultural development and governments to increase the demand for sustainable coffee. While almost half of the global coffee supply is produced according to a sustainability standard, only 12 percent is sold in the market as sustainable coffee. The partners will create commitments for the various parts of the coffee sector.

Rwanda’s commitments include efforts to increase the production and yield per coffee tree, improve soil fertility, strengthen farmer organizations, and improve traceability in the value chain. Mexico’s commitments include improving farm productivity and providing access to credit programs.

There are three main ways that participants are encouraged to contribute:

  • Commit to publicly stating and reporting their goals.

  • Join a working group to help shape the challenge.

  • Participate in commitment networks with other participants to share experience and encourage additional action.

Coffee in Rwanda is a “critically important commercial crop,” said Ambassador Bill Kayonga, CEO of Rwanda's National Agricultural Export Development Board (NAEB), in a statement. There are over 355,000 smallholder farm families in Rwanda that depend on coffee to make a living. “We have an obligation to these farmers, their lands and the economy of our country to ensure the continued sustainability of the industry,” Kayona said.

Coffee is also an import crop in Mexico, with an estimated production of 2.35 million bags of coffee a year. As in Rwanda, most of the coffee is grown by smallholder farmers, almost 500,000. And like Rwandan coffee farmers, Mexican coffee farmers depend on coffee production to make a living. “We believe that by publicly stating our commitment to work with our farmers to ensure sustainable practices that increase productivity and enhance their livelihood, while also minimizing the impact on the ecosystem, we can help set an example of how to elevate positive outcomes across all coffee producing regions,” said Santiago Arguello, director of coordination for Mexico's Integrated Plan for the Care of Coffee.

Making coffee the first sustainable agricultural product is a lofty goal, but it is one that is badly needed as coffee production is already feeling the effects of climate change. Consumer demand for coffee increases, with 600 billion cups being consumed annually, and the coffee industry is a $22 billion business. However, the coffee industry is being affected by changing weather patterns, warming temperatures and drought. Warming temperatures have increased the coffee berry borer, which grazes on coffee plants. The fungus called coffee rust thrives in warmer temperatures and can devastate coffee crops. Three of the top 15 coffee-producing nations in the world (Costa Rica, India and Ethiopia) have all seen a great decline in yields.

The coffee industry can help combat climate change by encouraging sustainable farming practices. This could provide over 30 percent of the carbon sequestration and storage needed to keep global temperature rise to a safe level, according to CI. And the challenge has the potential to be a catalyst for the coffee industry to help reduce the world’s carbon emissions.

Image credit: Flickr/jen

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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