Colombia steadily increases its “sustainable” coffee production

Colombian coffee producers are working fast so that more production can be qualified as “sustainable” as they believe that standing will become a global requirement to command a market premium.

“We believe that 60 percent of all the coffee produced in Colombia will be sustainable by the end of 2015. That was the goal agreed in 2012,” Carlos Ignacio Rojas, executive president of the main Colombian coffee producers association Asoexport, recently told Latin Business Daily by telephone from Bogota. “This is an issue in which exporters have shown much commitment. The trend is that within a decade we should be reaching 100 percent, but that will depend on whether markets will be willing to pay premiums and also on whether they make their requisites for entering their markets stricter."

In 2012, Colombian coffee producers exported about 7.2 million bags (each with 132 pounds) out of 7.7 million bags produced. Only about 18 percent of the exports met the criteria to be “sustainable,” he said.

For this year, the expected production is 13.3 million bags, of which 12 million bags will be exported. Of that export total, 60 percent will be of a “sustainable” quality, though just a fraction of it will manage to command a premium.

For coffee output to carry a “sustainable” label, there are a series of labor and environmental requisites that need to be present, he said.

“It needs to be sustainable from an economic, social and labor perspective. This is harder as it implies that the coffee being produced must be a good business for all. Its price competitiveness cannot be achieved with the sacrifice of any of the actors in the chain,” Rojas said.

A second goal for Colombian exporters is to increase the premium for sustainable coffee to more of the country's exports. Of the 7 million bags exported that meet “sustainable” production standards, fewer than 2 million are actually labeled and marketed as such and can command a premium, he added.

“Every year we should at least be selling two million bags of 60 kilograms (132 pounds) to the market with that quality of sustainable,” he said. There is room to increase as more “sustainable” production is available, but marketing efforts are needed.

To carry a sustainable label, there are different organizations that inspect the chain of production.

“There are certain protocols that these entities demand which involve the handling of earth, residues and water. Some are focused on the environment while others are related to labor standards. Each institution has a checklist,” he said.

Premiums obtained can represent 5 percent or more of the final export price.

In some cases, “it has become a necessity especially to export coffee to Europe,” he said.

The association believes that having sustainable standards will soon cease to be just an advantage and become a requirement, not just in the European market but worldwide.