Santa Maria De Dota: Climbing the steep slope by his house, Fernando Solis Arguedas examined a leaf on one of his 50-year-old trees that produces arabica beans for the world’s first officially certified carbon neutral coffee.
Blaming an increasingly unpredictable climate for the first spots of roya fungus, he explained how sustainable techniques such as reducing chemical sprays and planting more shade trees meant higher prices for his coffee cooperative, Coopedota.
But forget organic. Carbon neutral produce has become the buzz term in the Central American nation of 5 million people as countries look to slash greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture while feeding growing populations.
“It’s the trend, but it means we can put our coffee in the international market and if the market is at $120 (Dh441), we might get $180 or $200,” said Solis, the third generation of his family to farm coffee.
“Although in reality a lot goes in costs, we think we come out better,” he said, watching the hawks drifting on currents of warm air over the town of Santa Maria de Dota, some 70km south of the capital San Jose.
Costa Rica is now home to three zero emission coffee companies plus some carbon neutral banana, pineapple and cattle producers, putting the nation at the forefront of a movement that is slowly growing.
Coffee is not the only drink going carbon neutral. Companies in Sri Lanka, India and China are producing zero emission tea.
Persuading Costa Rica’s coffee farmers to switch fertilisers or mills to cut energy and water consumption or turn pulp into bio-gas, is helping lower costs alongside their environmental footprint, said people in the coffee industry.
Many are keen to adapt as the changing climate clouds the future for producers, prompting the government recently to lift a 30-year ban on planting robusta trees that are more heat and disease resistant than arabica.
But getting consumers on board remains a major challenge as producing zero emission coffee comes with costs.
Prices don’t slip
“The social angle, the environmental angle, ensures our prices don’t go down,” said environmental manager Adrian Cordero, of Coopedota facility, Costa Rica’s coffee cooperative.
Cordero acknowledged that becoming carbon neutral was a slow process and required hefty initial investments for Coopedota.
The cooperative secures contracts several years in advance, which is security for farmers changing the way or crops they farm.
However facing stiff competition from bigger coffee producers such as Brazil, low or zero emission coffee gives Costa Rica an edge, said Carlos Fonseca Castro, technical manager at the country’s ICAFE coffee institute.
Costa Rica was the first to adopt a Nationally Appropriated Mitigation Action (NAMA) plan to help coffee producers cut emissions. It now has a plan in place for cattle.
While only three coffee companies are certified carbon neutral, more are working to slash emissions, seeing knock-on cost benefits, said Fonseca at ICAFE on San Jose’s outskirts.
Sri Lanka’s Bogawantalawa Tea Estates, which became carbon neutral this year, is confident buyers will catch on to carbon neutral as they did with organic products.
“When we mention it’s carbon neutral, they are very much interested because they also are able to mention this on their packs,” said Shivashankary Rajarammohan, head of corporate social responsibility. Eventually companies may have to show their carbon footprint as they do with nutritional values, said Peter Laderach, climate specialist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture.