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Good agricultural practices make Brazilian coffee growing ‘carbon negative’

This article was first published on May 9.2022 on the website of the Brazilian Coffee Exporters Council (CECAFÉ)

Courtesy to Silvia Pizzol, CECAFÉ Sustainability Manager

Socio-Environmental Governance (ESG) is emerging as a guiding criterion for trade flows, investment, and consumer behavior in the top destination markets for Brazilian coffee. This trend translates into demands for more transparency regarding the carbon footprint of internationally traded agricultural and livestock products and opportunities for access to green financing, with differentiated interest rates, in addition to connections with the carbon market, which has great development potential.

For Brazilian coffee growing to benefit from the opportunities arising from the greener global economy, it is critical to demonstrate, based on science, that there is an additional benefit generated from the use of decarbonizing technologies on farms.

The results of COP-26, which paved the way for the regulation of the global carbon market, reinforce the importance of the additional benefit principle. That is, proving that the practices and technologies used by productive systems generate a reduction in the emission of GHG beyond what already occurs without them.

In tune with these market trends and to demonstrate the world that coffee production is associated with environmental conservation in Brazil, the Brazilian Coffee Exporters Council (Cecafé) developed the project “Carbon Balance in Coffee Production with Good Agricultural Practices in Minas Gerais”.

This scientific study had the direct participation of exporters associated to Cecafé and was conducted by a team of specialists in climate and emissions from the Institute of Forest and Agricultural Management and Certification (Imaflora), under the leadership of Professor Carlos Eduardo Cerri, from the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (Esalq), of the University of São Paulo (USP), a renowned researcher in soil science and climate change. The initiative also relied on global partners – Lavazza Foundation and Starbucks – and the support of the Educampo Project, from Sebrae-MG, to implement the field phase.

Aimed at estimating the carbon balance of coffee production in Minas Gerais and the additional benefit principle generated by the adoption of decarbonizing practices, the Project measured the release and sequestration of GHGs considering the intrinsic characteristics of the three main regions of the largest coffee producing state in Brazil: South, Cerrado, and Matas de Minas.

Cecafé project shows that sustainable coffee plantations sequester more carbon than they emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The GHG emissions were estimated based on the *GHG Protocol and conducted on 40 typical coffee farms in Minas Gerais, divided into pairs “traditional” and “good practices”, i.e., decarbonizing practices, such as the application of organo-mineral fertilizers, organic compost and/or maintenance of a more intense soil coverage.

In the field stage, soil and coffee tree samples were extracted from eight farms representative of regional production realities, in order to quantify the variations in soil carbon stocks, up to one meter deep, and in plant biomass due to the adoption of the practices mentioned above.
The conclusion of the studies indicates that the adoption of good practices in coffee growing generates additional benefit in carbon sequestration, since it retains even more CO2eq in the soil and plant than it emits into the atmosphere, compared to traditional management, which is already ‘carbon negative’.

Considering the transition from traditional to more conservationist management, in the average of the properties evaluated, a negative carbon balance of 10.5 tons of CO2eq per hectare per year was found, showing that Brazilian coffee farming is an important asset for mitigating climate change.

In terms of the produced beans, the results show that the carbon additional benefit due to the adoption of good agricultural practices on farms is -3.79 tons of CO2eq per ton of green coffee.

Even on the properties where coffee is produced in a more traditional way, an evaluation based on data from the scientific literature shows that the activity also sequesters more CO2eq than it emits GHGs, which is explained by the fact that these conventional practices are already more advanced in terms of sustainability.

In this case, the negative carbon balance is 1.63 t CO2eq/ha/year, considering the 3.40 tons sequestered in the plant biomass (1), Against 1.77 ton coming from the emissions of the field production, implying that conventional coffee farming is also “carbon negative”.
With an extra piece of information, not included in the carbon balance, the study also evaluated the impact of preserving native vegetation on farms to mitigate climate change. The results show that for each hectare of grown coffee there is, on average, 50 tons of carbon stored in the form of Legal Reserves and Permanent Preservation Areas (PPA), which are maintained by the coffee growers.

To illustrate the magnitude of nature conservation in the regions evaluated by the project, it is worth noting that in the rural areas of the South, Cerrado and Matas de Minas regions – where coffee is one of the crops – there are 51.1 thousand km2 set aside for the preservation of native vegetation on farms, an area equivalent to 1.25 times the territory of Switzerland(2).

The conclusion of Cecafé’s Carbon Project study shows, scientifically, that the Brazilian coffee farming is a fundamental asset to contribute to the reduction of gas emissions associated to climate changes, retaining more than it is releasing carbon gas into the atmosphere.

The results are in line with the greener signs of the world economy and may open doors for Brazil to access credits for activities that respect ESG criteria. In addition, they meet the growing demand of industries and consumers for sustainable products and, finally, show that the adoption of good practices is vital to attenuate extreme climate effects, mitigating economic impacts on the producer’s income.
(1) Source: IMAFLORA adapted from Souza (2019) and Souza et al. (2 023 – in prep)
(2) Source: Cecafé, from Embrapa Territorial data “Áreas dedicadas à preservação da vegetação nativa pelo mundo rural no Brasil, em 2021.”
Marcos Matos

Silvia Pizzol
CECAFÉ Sustainability Manager
9 de May de 2022|

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