Speaking to the coffee industry gathered in San José recently for the annual Sintercafé coffee conference, Tensie Whelan described her vision of the future.
“Imagine a 21st century green revolution for agriculture that, unlike its 20th century forerunner, does not depend on petrochemicals, deforestation, and enormous inputs of water to fuel its growth, but instead focuses on something that has disappeared from the world… training farmers in good practices,” she said.
Coffee, she said, is leading the way toward that future.
Whelan, president of Rainforest Alliance, a non-governmental organization that works to certify sustainable agriculture forestry and tourism, spoke with The Tico Times this week in a phone call from Washington, D.C.
TT: How is the coffee industry a leader for the greening of agriculture?
TW: Clearly, there are a lot of different areas in agriculture that are working on sustainability, but I would say coffee is the farthest ahead.
Coffee, tea, cacao, citrus, bananas, certain types of vegetables (have all been working on sustainability), but there has been activity in coffee for the longest time.
It’s consumed all over the world and is a product that ends up in one part; it doesn’t end up baked into something, so you can easily talk about its origin or the sustainability issue.
What are the basic practices that a coffee farmer must undertake to be certified by Rainforest Alliance? What are the benefits?
There are 200 different criteria. It requires redesigning how you grow coffee. Some of the specific examples are making sure you have a specific number and type of trees in coffee landscape to provide shade, biodiversity, habitat and to avoid soil erosion. We require an inventory and management of wildlife around farms.
There’s water – the use of water, figuring how to reduce that as much as possible, looking at many areas.
On the social side workers are often seasonal … and are not given full benefits. Our requirement is looking into international labor standards, housing, latrines, health care for kids.
There are a lot of other areas – chemical use, integrated pest management, not using any of the banned chemicals, also making sure that chemicals are locked away and carefully handled.
One thing we’ve seen consistently is up to 20 percent in increased productivity.
We’re seeing that the management system improves the quantity and quality of the coffee, which means they get more money.
You said many major, mainstream corporations are making commitments to sustainable and certified coffee. Can you tell me a little about these companies and what they’re doing?
Kraft buys about 10 percent of the world’s coffee and has made a commitment to buy mainstream sustainable coffee. They are increasing their purchases, basically doubling every year. McDonald’s in the United Kingdom and Ireland (which sells certified sustainable coffee) has seen a 20 percent increase of their sales because of it.
Caribou is a coffee chain in the United States, second largest after Starbucks, and has made a commitment to get 60 percent of their coffee certified. Costa, which is bigger than Starbucks in the U.K., has a commitment to 100 percent Rainforest Alliance.
You mentioned government policies can help, such as in El Salvador, where they’ve reduced taxes on companies that are certified sustainable. What should Costa Rica do to encourage this?
The Costa Rican government is really focused on payments for ecosystem service for forestry. It would be terrific to get payments for ecosystem service for planting and reforestation on coffee farms.
Much of the coffee is sun coffee (as opposed to shade-grown). They cut down all the trees in the 1970s. The government can provide financial incentive to bring the trees back.
Also, the government has hospitals and schools and government buildings where they serve coffee. They could require sustainable certified coffee in their own installations, police stations and prisons.