Supporting social, environmental and economic sustainability in the Costa Rican coffee industry

This project will support Costa Rican coffee producers’ recovery from the global pandemic through a focus on enhancing and accentuating bean quality in a manner that will give long-term support to small-scale producers and prevent current environmentally destructive outcomes.

Overview

Working in collaboration with the national, government-backed Coffee Institute, Icafe, the project team will:

  • Produce materials to improve Icafe’s communication and data-exchange with small-scale producers around enhancing the quality of the coffee beans they produce.
  • Analyse the positive and negative outcomes of a current trend in focusing on ‘Direct Trade’ between international buyers and individual producers, instead of an older model based around cooperatives.

The project contributes to the UN Sustainable Development Goals Life on Land (SDG 15) and Climate Action (SDG 13) by supporting sustainable agricultural production and forest and biodiversity conservation through stemming the loss of coffee-centred ecosystems. Societal benefits include Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG 8) and Reduced Inequalities (SDG 10) by supporting better returns for small-scale coffee producers. Finally, SDG 12, Responsible Consumption and Production will be addressed through work with speciality coffee companies in the UK and connecting consumer choice to fairer economic outcomes that, in turn, support environmental protection and sustainability.

  • Sustainable Development Goals

    This project examined the following SDGs:

    SDG 8 – Decent Work and Economic Growth
    SDG 10 – Reduced Inequalities
    SDG 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production
    SDG 13 – Climate Action
    SDG 15 – Life on Land

    Find out more about the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Project description

Unroasted coffee beans are the world’s most traded agricultural commodity. This highly valuable product has been commercialised in Costa Rica since its inception as an independent nation in 1821. The ‘golden grain’ has represented prosperity in the past but its fluctuating price over the last decade has diminished the enthusiasm it once had amongst Costa Rican growers turning them to other forms of agricultural production or to giving up their land to urban expansion. The latest fall in prices and production in 2019 and 2020 (see Index Mundi 'Costa Rica Green Coffee Production by Yearfrom the U.S. Department of Agriculture) was exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and has seen a further drop in production (see Figure 1) and producer numbers.

Coffee production is often held up as a model for environmental sustainability with shade grown coffee producing sustainable ecosystems that particularly support insect pollinators and avian populations. Costa Rican coffee in particular is renowned for its good environmental practices with more than 70% of its coffee produced under greenhouse gas adaptation and mitigation actions (Icafe). This means that the coffee market crises that push marginal growers out of the sector have real environmental impact as these farmers are turning to less environmentally sustainable activities such as cattle farming or pineapple production, or selling their land for urban development.

Finding approaches that increase bean value, and thus returns to growers to help them mitigate the cyclical nature of this industry, has long been an industry goal. Approaches have focused on improving the quality of the beans themselves through better agricultural practices but also on leveraging other moral and environmental aspects of coffee production to add qualities such as economic fairness or environmental protection that attract a price premium. From the 1990s the Fair Trade movement has been one such approach however its impact has been relatively limited (see Luetchford, 'Fair Trade and a Global Commodity: coffee in Costa Rica', 2008). Meanwhile small and marginal producers are still finding coffee price oscillations unsustainable. An emerging trend is to promote ‘Direct Trade’ between producers and distributors in the Global North - including small-batch coffee roasters and cafes. Focused on micro-lotting (the growing of specific coffee varieties on small plots) and using narratives around individual growers’ personal stories (see for instance Horsham Coffee Roaster's advertisement of Costa Rican Coffee) this approach seeks to increase the economic returns to producers. The danger, however, is that in focusing on individual economic relations this approach undermines the older collective risk management provided by Costa Rica’s established local cooperatives that have long been at the centre of coffee production. In this crucial period of post-pandemic recovery, research is critically required to assess the relative benefits, costs and risks associated with this move to Direct Trade while continuing to improve bean quality itself.

A graph showing the volume of Costa Rican Coffee production from 2019 until 2022 (in the unit of bushels).Figure 1: Costa Rican Coffee Production between 2019 and 2022 (in the unit of bushels)

Timeline and funding

Timeline

March 2022-July 2022

Funding

HEIF fund co-sponsored by SSRP (£26,718)

Activities

  • Undertaking a literature review on the environmental and economic sustainability of microlotting and Direct Trade narratives. The review will compare these approaches with other trends used in the past to increase value for marginal growers such as Fair Trade and cooperatives
  • Interviewing UK coffee buyers (Horsham Coffee Roasters, Union Hand-Roasted Coffee and Square Mile Coffee Roasters) about how the trend of personal stories and microlotting have impacted their sales. The interviews will also cover how the use of technology has facilitated these relationships and explore possible further collaborations with these companies.
  • Conducting three months of fieldwork in Costa Rica with producers in Tarrazú (Dota), Valle Occidental (Atenas and Naranjo) and Guanacaste (El Dos) to assess the impacts of microlotting and direct trade with individual growers. Including participatory observation and interviews with growers, technicians from Icafe, cooperative administration staff, seasonal workers and former coffee growers.
  • Producing a printed/electronic guide with a series of recommendations (in Spanish) on how Icafe’s specialists can enhance their relationships with growers in order for producers to correctly follow the technical advice Icafe gives periodically in terms of production. Icafe’s data show that most growers that struggle with quality issues are not adhering to their instructions (e.g., when to apply fertilisers). The project aims to improve the communication between producers and Icafe for growers to have better harvest results.
  • Organising workshops with Icafe’s personnel from regional offices to discuss how to implement the recommendations issued in the guide. This will be moderated by Dr Layla Zaglul Ruiz in Spanish.
  • Holding workshops with producers to discuss the use of technology for communicating with buyers and facilitating tools for production. Activities will include observing them using Icafe’s traceability and sustainability app (Trazabilidad / Sostenibilidad – Cafe De Costa Rica), weather forecast websites and their phones in general.

Expected outcomes and impacts

The global pandemic reduced Costa Rican coffee production (see Figure 1), primarily through limiting the supply of migrant labour during the harvest as well as increasing the costs of production and global transport. These extra costs, and the impact they have had on further reducing productivity and the number of producers, have emphasised the importance of maximising the returns producers receive for their beans. This project engages with this issue through focusing, first, on practical steps to support farmers in improving the physical quality of their beans. The second step is to explore the value that buyers and consumers in the Global North place on various tangible and intangible qualities of coffee, that is its aroma and taste (tangible qualities) but also the narratives around its production and the relationships within its supply chain (intangible qualities). By finding ways in which value can be added to the beans, and thus producers can earn more money for their crops, the project will support not only the short-term recovery but also the longer-term stability of coffee farmers’ livelihoods and the ecosystems they sustain.

The team aims to achieve the following key changes:
  • Improve communication and data exchange between Icafe and small-scale producers
  • Increase the quality levels of coffee production to improve the economic returns for small-scale farmers
  • Assess the socio-economic costs, benefits and risks associated with a focus on microlots and direct trade
  • Support applications for funding for further research and producer support (including to NGOs and governments in Costa Rica and the UK) and explore collaborations with UK-based coffee companies.

The project will also contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals Life on Land (SDG 15) and Climate Action (SDG 13) by supporting sustainable agricultural production and forest and biodiversity conservation through stemming the loss of coffee-centred ecosystems. Societal benefits include Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG 8) and Reduced Inequalities (SDG 10) by supporting better returns for small-scale coffee producers. Finally, SDG 12, Responsible Consumption and Production will be addressed through work with speciality coffee companies in the UK and connecting consumer choice to fairer economic outcomes that, in turn, support environmental protection and sustainability.

In short, improving the efficiency, productivity and, above all, bean quality of coffee farms will help increase their economic returns and ensure that the important, sustainable ecosystems they sustain are not lost to less environmentally friendly forms of agricultural production nor replaced by urban development.

A key innovation of this project will be to explore potential relations with speciality coffee roasters in the UK. Beyond examining how their Direct Trade approach can support small-scale coffee producers we will also explore how our academic research can support and be supported by these commercial partners, realising longer-term benefits for the University of Sussex as well as the roasters and Costa Rican producers.

The team

Where we worked

Costa Rica.