Sustainable from Whose Perspective?

By Mark deGuzman, Temple Coffee Educator

Last October I ticked a box on the bucket list of many coffee professionals: I made a trip to a coffee producing country, or “Origin” as many like to say. It’s something that we so often like to romanticize; visiting a coffee farm and seeing the red berries or fruit that eventually turns into the tasty brown beverage we know as coffee. For some it means having a better understanding of the product we work so hard to present in all its purity. For others it’s an idea of a more simple life where you work the land and the product is a direct representation of the work you put into it.

In many ways, this is true. The best coffee comes from the hands of farmers who work diligently to do what is best for the coffee and the land. If you do not put care into the crop, it is unlikely that coffee produced from it will be any good. The reality is that producing high quality coffee is far from simple.

Working as a coffee professional and educator I have always figured that I had an understanding of the challenges involved in producing great coffee. The best coffees have to be hand-picked with the utmost care, selecting only the ripest cherries. The trees can grow up to 15 feet tall at high elevation and on steep terrain. After picking they must be meticulously sorted, washed, and dried. In the end, the quality of the final product is still unknown until the entire process is completed. That’s the process, and it sounds simple enough on paper, but then you see it: thousands of coffee trees on extremely steep hills, and you realize how difficult it really must be.

Imagine growing and tending to coffee grown on these steep hills.

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s a disparity between what we read and what we experience, but the thing that troubles me about my experience is why I was in Guatemala in the first place: sustainability. I went to Guatemala to participate in Avance, the Specialty Coffee Association’s (SCA) first ever sustainability conference. Industry professionals, researchers, farmers, producers, public officials and more came together to learn from experts and talk about the solutions to the ever-growing challenges to produce coffee. As expected, we talked about climate change, Roya (a fungus that attacks the coffee plant), drought and fungus-resistant varieties of coffee, increasing the value of coffee, and a few other topics. Each of these can be talked about in-depth, but to keep things as simple as possible let’s take a look at Roya.

Roya, also known as coffee leaf rust, is a fungus that attacks the leaves of the coffee plant thereby hindering its ability to provide nutrients to the coffee fruit and eventually leads to the death of the plant. It has become a huge problem in Guatemala and other parts of Central America, with some farms losing 80% or more of their crop because of it. So how do we deal with such a devastating fungus? Farmers can either spray copper fungicides to kill the fungus or plant Roya-resistant varieties of coffee. It is one of those things that sounds reasonable, but for some it is not so simple.