Carbon-Neutral Coffee Presents an Interesting Reform to Food Production


[Photograph: puuikibeach on Flickr]

This past week, a coffee growers cooperative from the Santa Maria de Dota region of Costa Rica announced its plans to export the first "carbon neutral" coffee. Coopedota R.L., a cooperative of 800 growers, has been working for 12 years to achieve carbon-neutral status. The certification, titled PAS 2060, was enacted in April 2010 by the British Standards Institute, an independent standards group. Since its announcement, it has been considered a good international standard for carbon neutrality by many experts and corporations.

The standards require an interested company to collect data about direct energy use, purchased energy, and indirect emissions resulting from a product's distribution. Together, these three "scopes" of emissions are the carbon footprint that must be neutralized to achieve the carbon-neutral standard. The company must also develop a plan for reduction of carbon emissions, and offset all emissions with carbon credits as approved by a third party.

Figuring out the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that result from the production of a certain crop is extremely difficult, given the multiple steps of processing and transport involved in its growth and marketing. Coffee in particular has dramatic environmental impacts—forests are often cleared for plantations, the crops require fertilizer and pesticides, and the beans are shipped all over the world after picking. It is important to note that Coopedota has dedicated several years to achieving carbon neutrality. But once approved, companies can potentially market their products as "Carbon Neutral," just as they would advertise organic or hormone-free items.

One could see this titling as just another way for large corporations to claim a stake in the environmentally-conscious consumer market. And certainly we've seen the corruption of labels like "all-natural," which are unstandardized and indicate virtually nothing about the health or production of that food item. But this set of standards has more to do with reforming the industry than drawing in the consumer. While there is certainly a marketable value to a carbon-neutral product, companies that achieve PAS 2060 certification will simultaneously be reducing GHG output on a pretty large scale.

It is well-known that agriculture and food industry contributes to environmental degradation in the United States—and pollutant emission is no small part of this contribution. The carbon-neutral approach is one that addresses a commonly accepted and understood problem, climate change, and creates a solution that is applicable through more responsible food practices. It would be interesting to see American food manufacturers adopt this approach. If corn growers, beef packers, or other industry giants made their process carbon-neutral, the environmental impacts could be huge. Should we be putting more pressure on domestic producers to go carbon-neutral? And should carbon-neutral products be labeled for consumers?

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly magazine.