By Sophie Hares
SANTA MARIA DE DOTA, Costa Rica, May 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - 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, 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 70 km (40 miles) 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.
Coffee production has played a major role in Costa Rica's history and it is famed for its high-quality arabica varieties. It is the world's 14th largest coffee producer although it only accounts for about one percent of the world's coffee.
But with a reputation for being environmentally friendly, Costa Rica set itself an ambitious - and increasingly improbable - target in 2007 to become carbon neutral by 2021, which means tackling the 37 percent of its emissions coming from farming.
Coffee makes up nearly 10 percent of its total emissions.
Globally agriculture, forestry and other land use accounts for about 24 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Persuading Costa Rica's coffee farmers to switch fertilisers or mills to cut energy and water consumption or turn pulp into biogas, 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.
Inside the vast Coopedota facility in Santa Maria de Dota - where most livelihoods are tied to coffee - millions of beans are sorted into sacks as the smell of roasting coffee pervades.
In the quality control room, a pair of tasters tested dozens of cups of coffee, comparing the fragrance and notes from the brews before spitting the remainder into steel beakers.
Although it is now ranked as the world's first carbon neutral coffee company, the 900-member cooperative originally set out to cut costs and increase efficiency but along the way realised the environmental benefits of the new processes.
Now with water consumption down 80 percent and energy use 40 percent lower, it uses coffee husks instead of firewood to dry beans in cylinders, said environmental manager Adrian Cordero.
Coopedota tracks the emissions produced at each stage, from planting and fertilising the seeds, taking the coffee cherries from the farm to be depulped, the beans dried and in some cases roasted - buying carbon credits to offset part of its impact.
Cordero said the cooperative exports about half its coffee to the United States and the rest to newer markets in Asia where people are willing to pay the higher price.
"The social angle, the environmental angle, ensures our prices don't go down," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
FINDING AN EDGE
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 change 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 Appropriate 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.
"It's not necessarily expensive but it's a change of mentality around (coffee) production and processing," he said.
However he said difficulties in accurately measuring how carbon is stored and the need to buy credits was a disincentive.
Roberto Azofeifa, head of the Ministry of Agriculture's agro-environmental production programme, said training and loans were helping farmers speed up to reduce environmental impact.
But raising consumer awareness and finding niche markets for carbon neutral products remained a hurdle.
"The carbon neutral target is inspiring people to do interesting things and even if they don't have certification, they're doing important work such as reducing emissions through waste reuse," said Azofeifa, in his San Jose office.
"How to convince the consumer to be part of this trend is an enormous challenge."
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.
"It's the same as food safety and traceability. Consumers get more informed and they just want to know they're buying the right thing," he said. (Reporting by Sophie Hares; editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/)
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