Private sector: A powerful ally toward climate change adaptation

Farmer carrying sack of coffee beans. Photo credit: Neil Palmer (CIAT)

No matter what some may say about the private sector, one thing that is true is that when it commits to a cause, it can move mountains.

Addressing climate change is one such cause, especially for companies that market chocolate and coffee in Southeast Asia.

Climate change poses a big risk to areas that grow cocoa in Indonesia, the largest producer of the crop outside West Africa. CIAT projections of future climate suitability for cocoa predict fundamental changes in the characteristics of current cocoa climates. While Indonesia will still remain a largely suitable country for cocoa production, current producing regions will face steep adaptation requirements in order to maintain the areas cultivating cocoa.

That is a “serious concern for the future,” noted Mondelēz International, which owns well-loved confectionery brands Oreo, Cadbury and Toblerone, in a position paper it released last year.

In 2012, one of the world’s biggest chocolate companies launched Cocoa Life, pledging to spend $400 million by 2022 to ensure the sustainability of cocoa production and improve the lives and livelihoods of the people and their communities within and along its supply chain. By doing so, Mondelēz will be able to meet the continuous growing demand for chocolate. The program expanded to Indonesia in 2013.

Together with other scientists at the Climate Policy Hub of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), I work with Mondelēz to help achieve that. We are studying the different threats that cocoa farmers face because of climate change and how these threats link to deforestation. We’re exploring the use of Terra-I to monitor land cover changes cocoa-growing areas. We are also researching the types of shade trees that can capture and reduce carbon emissions.

The results from those studies will guide us on the “climate-smart agriculture” practices — those that will allow farms to improve yields and adapt to the climate of the future — that we can prioritize, support and implement in the Cocoa Life area in Lampung province. We are currently implementing the pilot in the Lampung area, reaching 2,500 farmers. Eventually, we want to spread the use of these practices in all cocoa-producing communities to increase sustainability of cocoa production across Indonesia.

Climate change is also expected to wreak havoc on the coffee industry in Vietnam. Our projections show that there are coffee-producing regions that are becoming less suitable for coffee cultivation, with farmers seeing more pest and disease outbreaks, droughts and flash flooding. Worse, some of these areas will become unsuitable in 20–30 years, unless something is done now to reverse it.

Vietnam mainly grows Robusta coffee, which has a more bitter taste and commands a lower price than Arabica. Coffee roasters use Robusta as filler for other coffee products or to blend with Arabica to make a stronger espresso.

In general, Vietnamese farmers use massive amounts of fertilizer and water and eliminate shade trees. That way, they can produce and sell vast amounts of coffee, hence offsetting Robusta’s lower price. It’s no wonder that Vietnam today is the world’s biggest producer of coffee per hectare, at 2.4 tons. The runner-up, Brazil, doesn’t even come close, at 1.4 tons per hectare.

Excessive irrigation, overuse of fertilizer and the lack of shade trees, however, come with a cost. Coffee farms in Vietnam face the likelihood of not having enough water for irrigation and failing soil health in the future. Add weather events such as drought to that, and it could lead to a catastrophe for such an important industry.

Here, again, the private sector is playing a major role in making sure the coffee sector will continue to thrive despite climate change.

The coffee & climate (c&c) global initiative provides coffee farmers with information and training on best practices for how to adapt to climate change. In Vietnam, it works through the Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung, or HRNS, the foundation of one of the initiative’s founders and the world’s largest coffee trading company, Neumann Kaffee Gruppe.

HRNS championed the inclusion of greenhouse gas emissions reduction by the coffee sector as part of the country’s nationally determined contribution under the 2015 Paris Agreement. It is also instrumental in encouraging the government, particularly the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, to come up with a five-year national strategy that will enable the coffee sector to adapt to and mitigate the risks of climate change. The strategy is a first for Vietnam.

We are currently in the final stages of discussions with the ministry in developing that strategy, which followed a series of interviews with all the important industry players — farmers, input suppliers, coffee roasters, coffee breeders, traders and sustainability certifier Utz/Rainforest Alliance. During those meetings, we gathered what the participants thought were the threats they face because of climate change and discuss the actions that would be required to address them to make sure that coffee farming remains viable in the coming decades.

The examples from Indonesia and Vietnam show the importance of involving the private sector in climate adaptation initiatives. They illustrate that companies can be a powerful ally in the work we do as scientists in helping make a difference in the lives of people, particularly those living in communities where they operate.

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