17 March 2021

How growing, and drinking, coffee can help protect forests

Could high quality specialty coffee production improve livelihoods and protect biodiversity?

Coffee beans

Coffee is the most popular drink consumed worldwide. Over 500 billion cups of coffee are drunk each year. 

The unfortunate reality for coffee drinkers is that coffee farming has often been a major cause of deforestation and biodiversity decline in tropical countries, from the Americas across the tropical belt to Australasia. 

In some regions, the negative consequences of coffee production are worsening as the global demand for coffee increases.

Farmer stood in the middle of Yayu forest
Yayu forest Ethiopia © Emily Garthwaite/Union Hand-Roasted Coffee.

Coffee and sustainability

The recent report Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review stresses that our relationship with the natural world requires fundamental change.

It argues that human societies could live sustainably by ensuring that the demands they put on nature do not exceed its resources. 

Coffee farming is an example of how we need to change the way we grow our crops.

Instead of destroying natural habitats, it could serve to preserve forests and biodiversity, sustain beneficial ecosystem services, fix carbon, improve degraded landscapes, and provide a sustainable livelihood for farmers. 

One of the difficulties of quantifying the impact of coffee farming on the natural world, both negative and positive, is the paucity of reliable data and research products.

In 2014, we began a project in the Yayu Coffee Forest Biosphere reserve in Ethiopia with Union Hand-Roasted Coffee, to better understand the synergy between coffee farming and biodiversity, with the aim of gaining a more detailed understanding of the coffee supply chain (often referred to as the value chain).

Yayu Forest trees
Yayu forest Ethiopia © Emily Garthwaite/Union Hand-Roasted Coffee.

Ethiopian coffee

The coffee sector is a multi-billion industry.

In Ethiopia alone, coffee farming provides about 25% of its export earnings, and supports the income of an estimated 15 million people. 

The humid, tropical forests of Ethiopia and neighbouring South Sudan are the natural (wild) home of Arabica coffee (Coffea arabica).

These forests exist in a natural or semi-natural state, and some have been designated as reserves for the conservation of nature and livelihoods.

Home to large numbers of other plants, animals, and fungi, the forests play a key role in providing a livelihood for the people that live in and around them.

The Yayu Coffee Forest Biosphere Reserve is noted for its particularly high levels of natural (wild) Arabica coffee genetic diversity.

In its core area, the Yayu forest remains intact and largely undisturbed with many thousands of wild coffee plants mixed with other wild vegetation.

The actual coffee farming occurs at the forest edges and transition zones of the reserve, where it provides up to 70% of the cash income for over 90% of the local population.

Coffee farmers looking at coffee beans in Ethiopia
Coffee farming in Ethiopia © Alan Schaller/Union Hand-Roasted Coffee.
Female coffee farmers in Ethiopia
Coffee farmers Ethiopia © Alan Schaller/Union Hand-Roasted Coffee.

Specialty coffee

In our recent study, we looked at the potential for income improvement and biodiversity conservation via specialty coffee.

Specialty coffee is a high-quality product, which like fine wine, commands higher prices.

Over the last two decades, demand for specialty coffee has increased and continues to grow.

Its higher quality status is achieved by implementing best-practice farming, harvesting and processing methods, and high levels of quality control.

In an ideal model, the extra income generated by speciality coffee is distributed throughout the supply chain, including the coffee farmers. 

In the study, we found that even moderate participation in the specialty coffee market positively influenced income for the smallholder coffee farmer.

If farmers sold just a proportion (c. 25%) of their harvest for use as speciality coffee, their annual income from coffee increased by 30%.

Based on these findings, we projected a scenario where, if farmers were to sell all their harvest as speciality coffee, their income from coffee could increase by 120%, although this would require optimum operating efficiency of their farms and the cooperatives.

In both cases, the additional income was achieved by receiving a higher price for the coffee.

Due to a dramatic increase in the quality of the coffee, brought about by interventions undertaken during the project, the price achieved was 2.80 $/lb, twice the Fairtrade minimum price paid for Arabica coffee at that time.

Importantly, the increases in income via speciality coffee were achieved without the need for more land, or increased inputs, such as artificial fertilizers, irrigation, herbicides and pesticides. 

Bag of Yayu coffee
Yayu Wild Forest Wholebean Coffee © Union Roasted.

Once sold on, the Yayu Forest project coffee was purchased in sufficient volumes for it to be placed in two major UK supermarkets (Sainsbury’s and Waitrose), and sold at Kew retail outlets and online

Between 2015 and 2018, a total of £924,751 of speciality coffee was sold purchased from across the five Yayu cooperatives, much of this constituting additional revenue for the community.

Yayu Forest Coffee is now in its seventh year and continues to sustain strong consumer demand.

The 0.20 $/lb forest conservation premium, which has been translated into a 25p donation (per pack) of retail coffee, goes to the Yayu community and ongoing research. 

Environmental monitoring

Another key element of the study was to demonstrate that the coffee being sold as Yayu Forest Coffee was actually associated with forest.

Using satellite imagery, we were able to show that the Yayu coffee farms had tree cover levels and canopy health approaching undisturbed, wild forest.

In addition, we were able to show that the Yayu area has undergone only minimal deforestation over the last two decades.

Coffee farmer holding a bag full of red coffee berries
Coffee farmer Ethiopia © Alan Schaller/Union Hand-Roasted Coffee.

Sustainable sipping

While the aspirations of biodiversity conservation and agriculture are often in contradiction, there can be common ground, to provide opportunities for both biodiversity preservation and livelihoods from farming.

We have made progress in understanding and developing the value chain in Yayu, in such a way that supports and sustains these relationships.

While even the most sustainable forest coffee production can have some negative environmental consequences, they are substantially less impactful than many types of coffee farming, such as those involving recent, wholesale deforestation, and large-scale monoculture with environmentally harmful inputs. 

The problem for the consumer is that they have no means of understanding the environmental impact, good or bad, caused by their purchasing choices.

A good starting point would be for consumers to have more awareness of how their purchasing decisions impact on natural forests thousands of miles from where they sip their morning coffee.


Thanks to the Darwin Initiative for funding.

Coffee farmers looking at coffee beans

Mainstreaming biodiversity conservation and climate resilience at Yayu Biosphere Reserve (Ethiopia)

Preserving biodiversity and improving livelihoods through the development of high quality coffee and climate resilient farming practices.

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