Fairtrade helps coffee farmers prepare for change

Fairtrade is working closely with coffee farmers to help protect future production volumes and combat extreme weather and changing seasonal patterns resulting from climate change.

The price of coffee is volatile, and can fluctuate wildly year to year. Unpredictable weather conditions and susceptibility to disease also present significant challenges to growers.

As a result, independent non-profit organisation Fairtrade says many of the small-scale farmers who supply 80 per cent of total coffee volumes experience reduced yields and are at risk of producing low-quality crops. Due to systemic inequality in coffee trade structures, many also lack the financial and technical capacity to adapt to or mitigate these damaging effects. 

To empower disadvantaged producers in developing countries struggling through economic instability and a changing climate, Fairtrade focuses on three components of sustainability: people, planet, and prosperity, representing the social, environmental, and economic pillars underpinning a 30-year global mission to transform trade and transform lifes.

“For us, the key element in our vision is sustainability,” says Alfredo Alarcon Enuso, General Manager of Unicafec, a coffee-producing Fairtrade cooperative in Peru. “The focus of our mission is competitiveness, but [individual] farmers [being] competitive, not only the cooperative. We as an organisation of small farmers are committed to achieving competitiveness through productivity improvement, quality, and our dedication to specialty coffee markets. That’s what the markets are asking for.”

Climate change, however, looms as a major challenge to that competitiveness, and is likely to drive significant changes in the industry’s traditional growing areas. Already, Alfredo says there have been changes in Peru’s climate. As a result, harvest has moved later, with temperatures rising and low-altitude areas more affected.

“The weather has changed. We [used to] have a typical, normal month [in August] when we should be harvesting. [Now, when] it should be at the peak of the harvest, it’s at the bottom. Also, the activities we are able to do to mitigate the effects are quite limited. There is no easy resolution,” Alfredo says.

“There are works to diversify coffee varieties, but that’s a dual threat. For example, if you don’t diversify with new varieties of coffee, then you will be exposed to pests, which are now more frequent because of climate change. If you diversify with new varieties that are resistant to these impacts of climate change, then you can get low quality coffee. [You have to] choose your poison.”

Alfredo adds that coffee plants are becoming distressed through the effects of climate change, threatening to impact Peru’s natural production cycle. 

“You can no longer farm coffee successfully within 800 metres of sea level. In the range of altitude for coffee crops, it’s going up,” Alfredo says.

Fairtrade is working to deliver training and education that will be vital in equipping small-scale farmers to meet the challenges posed by climate change. It is also providing better access to credit, market information, and risk-management tools.

Alfredo says crop adaptation strategies include developing more resilient production systems, diversifying crops, and shifting farms upslope.

Farmers’ capacity to implement these strategies is often dependent on education, access to information, health, equity, and food security. Membership of a Fairtrade cooperative offers producers an opportunity to share knowledge, and invest in research and development.

According to Alfredo, together with representatives of other cooperatives, Unicafec is taking a hands-on approach to coping with the unpredictable consequences of a changing climate.

“We are working now on a research project to try and train new varieties in order to have resistance to the pests from climate change, but also cup quality. It’s a process. It’s in the middle of development. So we are yet to see how it goes,” Alfredo says. 

Aside from Fairtrade coffee helping fight climate change, purchasing its products ensures benefits for farming communities in developing countries.

In addition to the Fairtrade minimum price, which is set to cover the cost of sustainable production, coffee cooperatives receive an extra sum of money – the Fairtrade premium – for their produce. The coffee farmers, who are members of the cooperative, decide democratically how this is invested. This could be education or healthcare, building vital infrastructure such as roads and bridges for the community, or enhancing their businesses. At least 25 per cent of the premium is guaranteed to be invested in increasing productivity and quality improvement.

Fairtrade says many farmers, however, lack reliable market information. This, coupled with small yields, leads to unequal trade relations, where farmers lack bargaining power in negotiations. Frequently, this means they are not paid a fair price for their produce. To counteract this problem, Fairtrade helps to bring farmers together to strengthen their position and learn from one another.

“In 2018 for example, we saw extremely low stock exchange prices for coffee. There is a huge benefit [of cooperative membership] for the families and the farmers because most of the cooperatives, in the specific case of Unicafec, can pay much higher prices to the farmers than if they were selling to middlemen or conventional traders,” Alfredo says.

While the New York C market price for coffee has dropped to economically unsustainable levels, well below production cost, Fairtrade says it continues to unite consumers, producers, and commercial partners to enable action on critical issues such as climate change adaptation, supply chains, and global trade so that producers such as Alfredo and their cooperatives can embrace a sustainable farming future.

“That’s the vision towards 2021, that Unicafec will be [an] environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable organisation that will contribute to improving the living conditions of the coffee families,” Alfredo says. “That’s the challenge for us.”

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