Costa Rica pioneers low-carbon coffee

Gabriel Umana

Gabriel Umana, head of coffee at Costa Rica’s Ministry of Agriculture, says there has been ‘an awakening’ in how to deal with climate change.

Costa Rica’s ‘world-first’ Nama Café project has transformed coffee into a low-carbon industry and could serve as a blueprint for other agriculture sectors, writes NINA PULLMAN

The project has caused a type of awakening in our ministry. The concept behind Nama has made us think about subjects that we were not used to thinking about, like for example climate change, and how to adapt to it.

The environmental impact of coffee is becoming a major concern - from the impact of single-use cups, to the splash of milk that is linked to the emissions of the entire dairy industry.

In Costa Rica, it is the emissions and the energy used to make the coffee itself that are of most concern - but there is a solution at hand thanks to the pioneering Nama Café project.

The programme is the world’s first Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action (Nama) project in agriculture, working with 3,000 producers across the country and with a total investment of €8 million from several international partners.

Warmer temperatures

The concept was developed at the 2007 United Nation’s climate change conference in Bali, as a blueprint for sustainable growth in developing countries. It’s also part of Costa Rica’s overall aim to become the first country in the world to become carbon neutral by 2021.

At a training workshop in the Coto Brus province in southern Costa Rica, there are around 12 representatives from a range of coffee mills across the region, including a large co-operative, an organic specialist and a micro coffee mill run by women.

“We want to produce more coffee in a more sustainable way, and defend a Costa Rican tradition,” says Gisele Solis, from the Women’s Association of Biolley (Asomobi), a coffee co-operative and social enterprise close to the Panamanian border.

“It is important for our growers that we work with them to change, and I think it’s possible for them to adopt different practices and produce coffee in a more sustainable way.”

For many growers, Nama Café was a chance to tackle something they had already been experiencing. The area of planted coffee in Costa Rica has reduced from around 110,000 ha to 84,000 ha over 20 years, according to figures from the National Institute of Coffee, as warmer temperatures force production into higher altitudes where there is less available land.

Greenhouse gases

Stephanie Novoa, technical manager at another co-operative, Coopesabalito, says growers are witnessing climate change on their own farms.

She said: “They can see it in the kind of diseases they are getting in their coffee plantations, and also in the rainy season, which is no longer predictable. These kinds of things really affect the production of coffee.

“The coffee growers in Costa Rica aren’t going to reduce climate change, but they can set an example, and they feel like they are trying to solve the problem that is affecting them so much.”

As part of the Nama project, producers learn to measure their environmental impact through two ways: water use and disposal, and carbon footprint.

On farms, growers are encouraged to plant trees to absorb more carbon dioxide, and optimise fertiliser use, while at the processing and roasting stage, most emissions come from waste coffee shells, or pulp, which release greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide and methane.

The project has caused a type of awakening in our ministry. The concept behind Nama has made us think about subjects that we were not used to thinking about, like for example climate change, and how to adapt to it.

Measuring and reducing

Coffee mills are encouraged to invest in a specialist technology to capture these gases and create a green composting process.

Another area of focus is the viscous waste water left over from processes such as removing the shell and washing the beans, which have a sticky coating.

“The most common way of disposing of waste water is in big lagoons, and they use a lot of water,” says environmental engineer Alexia Quivros, explaining that instead they could use a plant called Pasto Estrella that can absorb the waste water.

Exactly what changes they make depends on the size of the business. Co-operative Coopesabalito, which buys coffee from over 1,000 growers, was able to invest $24,000 in new machinery to reduce its water use by 80 per cent, as well as updating roasters to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and planting over 1,800 trees.

Other smaller businesses don’t have the means to invest, and so the emphasis of Nama Café is on understanding, measuring and reducing environmental impact, and there are no compulsory certification costs.

Low-carbon technology

But even for larger businesses there is little incentive to invest in often expensive new green technologies without the possibility of charging a premium for the final product.

Costa Rican coffee already receives higher prices than the global average due to its high quality, but Quivros says producers need a further surplus if low-carbon coffee is to become financially viable.

The problem is the lack of consumer awareness around what it actually means. “We did a survey last year and found that in Germany only two per cent of consumers are interested in low-carbon coffee,” she explains. “They don’t know what the difference is, and a higher price puts them off.”

Part of the Nama Café programme has looked at different ways of marketing low-carbon coffee, with a new logo in the pipeline that could help flag it up on shelf. There is also a credit service that has been established alongside the project to help smaller producers invest in green technologies, but it’s clear that price remains a major barrier.

“It’s expensive to change actions and invest in low-carbon technology,” says Quivros. “Producers only get $20 more per sack for low-carbon coffee, and that is not enough. Maybe $50 extra would do it.”

Major achievement

For some, the biggest success of the Nama Café project has been the organisation of an entire industry geared towards one goal.

“The project has caused a type of awakening in our ministry,” says Gabriel Umana, head of coffee at Costa Rica’s ministry of agriculture. “The concept behind Nama has made us think about subjects that we were not used to thinking about, like for example climate change, and how to adapt to it.”

As it draws to a close in 2019, there are possibilities of expanding the impact of Nama Café to other agriculture sectors.

A small-scale project is looking at turning waste pulp from the coffee process into cattle feed, and there are also rumours of a similar ‘Nama Banana’ programme.

“In the short-term, the major achievement has been to generate a conversation around low-carbon coffee. And it has also helped producers think more long-term in their goals,” says Umana. “The hope is that we can share information and help make the country a more sustainable place.”

This Author

Nina Pullman is a freelance journalist specialising in food, supply chains and sustainability. She has travelled extensively and has just returned from South and Central America.