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399. Postscript: Water, water everywhere

Yesterday I highlighted some high-profile initiatives announced last week by specialty roasters in the United States.

The Keurig Green Mountain water stewardship work, in my mind, is particularly impressive for the degree to which it is embedded in the company’s core business: it sees water as both central to its business model and as a central constraint to the economic and human development of communities in its supply chain.  For the quality of the thinking behind its strategy: its five-part “water policy” is carefully considered and comprehensive.  For the breadth of the water-sector partnerships it has developed: American Rivers, Global Water Initiative (CARE, CRS, IIED, IUCN), Raise the River, charity: water, Water for People.  For the scope of its investments: $11 million in new commitments this year.  And for its ambitious aspirations for impact: clean water for 1 million people by 2020.  Keurig Green Mountain has positioned itself in these ways to be a leader in the sector.

This is not to say that roasters that may share Keurig Green Mountain’s concern for the issue and commitment to act but not, perhaps, its resources, cannot make important contributions to improve water resource management.  For most roasters, the best way to be part of the solution may be to avoid becoming part of the problem to begin with.  To take care of the water in their own supply chains before thinking about taking care of the water needs of others.  But how?


Pulp and wastewater from double-certified coffee being returned, untreated, to a stream in Central America.

I also mentioned in yesterday’s post the TEDx talk of Mariposa Coffee’s Amyie Kao.  She makes a moving argument for people to care about what she calls the global water crisis.  And she urges people to talk about water resources when they drink coffee.  Awareness is an important first step.  But we need to move from awareness to action.

Many roasters look first to certifications or codes of conduct to address sustainability issues in their supply chains.  These measures can create important incentives for the kinds of farming and milling practices that deliver water services: reducing or eliminating the use of agrochemicals that are a leading source of surface water contamination; improving shade cover for coffee to increase recharge and reduce soil erosion, water sedimentation and agrochemical run-off; and ensuring effective treatment of wastewater from the coffee milling process.

But certifications don’t always address everything relevant to sound water resource management.  And in my experience, there is sometimes a gap between what a certification or code of conduct may say on paper and the practices we see in the field.  I took this photo on a collective farm in Central America that produces double-certified coffee for the U.S. market.  The farm is organic, and the growers carefully protect the water sources on the farm on which downstream communities depend.  But they also divert a stream to the mill to convey, wash and soak its coffee, then return the water to stream without any treatment.

Equal Exchange is another roaster I mentioned yesterday.  Its Biosphere Reserve coffees are all organic, which means there is no agrochemical use in their production and at least some shade cover.  But in addition to organic certification, Equal Exchange also engages directly with its cooperative partners to ensure they are protecting water sources and treating their wastewater effectively.  Its 8 Rivers coffee is grown by the Las Colinas cooperative in the western highlands of El Salvador, where we worked with Equal Exchange and the coop to improve water source protection and improve the wastewater treatment systems so Las Colinas didn’t undermine with poor milling processes all the important contributions it was making to improve water quality through sustainable farming and water source protection practices.  This remains, in my mind, an interesting example of how roasters can complement mainstream certifications with direct engagement focused on water resource management.

Last year I collaborated with colleagues from CRS and the SCAA Sustainability Council on an article for the SCAA Chronicle that concluded with a list of eight actions roasters can take together with supply chain partners to improve water security in the coffeelands:

  1. Measure water use at mills in your supply chain and water quality downstream.  Report on your results.  Track them over time and benchmark your performance against industry best practices.
  2. Reforest.  Help growers in your supply chain increase shade cover in their coffee fields or plant trees on other parts of their farms, particularly any areas adjacent to rivers or streams where they can help reduce soil erosion.
  3. Protect water sources.
  4. Reduce the amount of water used in the milling process.
  5. Reuse water used to convey cherry for the washing process.
  6. Recycle by-products of the milling process: turn pulp and the sediment from wastewater into compost; treat wastewater and return it to local waterways after it is safe for aquatic life and human use.
  7. Create incentives for farmers and coops to improve water resource management.  Work with growers in your supply chain to set goals for improved performance in these areas and agree on per-pound price premiums or lump-sum payments when they meet your targets.
  8. Engage with policymakers, both on the ground in the coffeelands and with certifiers whose standards go a long way to influencing grower behavior.  Right now, for example, Rainforest Alliance is conducting a major review of its standards, creating oppotunities for influence and improvement of water resource management in the coffeelands.

These measures won’t cost $11 million, but they will make important contributions to water security in the coffeelands.



  • Hi Michael! Where can I find more about industry best practices when it comes to water use in fermenting and washing coffee? Can you share, or point me in the direction of, any figures? Over the past decade I have asked hundreds of farmers about water and found that certified farms (and mills processing certified coffees) are more likely to talk about the steps they take to protect water sources and treat wastewater than non-certified farms and mills, but that few people seem to measure volume. When asked about this subject, I usually cite 6 liters of water per kilo of parchment as the best I have heard (from an environmentally progressive mill in El Salvador), but that was five years ago and I’d love to have both more, and more current, data.


    • Michael Sheridan says:


      My experience is in line with yours–the folks who are most eager to talk about water resources are those who have invested to protect and conserve them, or those who have taken other measures to improve or certify their natural resource management practices.

      I know I refer in the post to benchmarks, but the truth is I don’t know what current industry standards are, or whether there is a database anywhere on this kind of performance data. It strikes me that the SCAA’s START would be a good place to, umm…start.

      Rather than benchmarks, I tend to think in terms of a performance continuum. On one extreme you have cases like the one I cite here–yikes. On the other, there is the demucilaging technology that really doesn’t require water. Personally, I want to see us work collectively to foster movement from the former toward the latter in three ways:

      (1.) eliminate the worst practices we see in the field, like diverting streams and releasing pulp and wastewater untreated into local waterways,
      (2.) incorporate new technologies that reduce and reuse water resources whenever that technology is compatible with the quality requirements of the marketplace, and
      (3.) treat all water that is used in wet-milling.

      The first one seems like a no-brainer.

      The second one reflects our realization that not everyone is keen on mechanical demucilaging. I had a great long visit in Bogotá last month with Claudia Penagos of, yes, Penagos, who said they never wanted to retrofit their ecopulpers with the capability for fermentation and washing, but to phase water out of the wet-milling equation. That’s not our goal. We want the best technology available that doesn’t compromise quality or undermine a grower’s competitive position in the marketplace. If that means a traditional washed process and soaking, then so be it, as long as we invest in the third component: treatment!

      Finally, I think there is a temptation to focus disproportionately on the mill because it is a place where water use is visible and measurable (even though, as you say, few actually measure), and not to spend as much time looking at everything that happens on a farm before cherry gets to the mill. The use of agrochemicals and shade management have enormous impacts on local water quality in the coffeelands, but those are less visible and harder to quantify for a buyer making occasional visits to source. I have seen you position the Counter Culture preference for organic coffee as an important part of your SOS initiative–Save our Soil. But it is also an important aspect of protecting water resources!

      If you want to collaborate on some mill water measurement initiatives, let’s discuss offline!


      • I absolutely DO want to collaborate so yes, let’s discuss that offline. I also want to acknowledge and applaud your point about the role that shade and agrochemical use play in looking at water in coffee production more holistically. You don’t have to know anything about how to measure water quality to find the photograph in your post cringe-worthy, whereas the effects of soil erosion upon and the oxygen level in the same river aren’t as visible to the (untrained coffee buyer) eye. Six years ago I took a stab at creating a farm environmental scorecard for Counter Culture to use in the absence of, or in addition to, common certifications. I read a lot of standards and talked to a lot of people who knew a lot more about how to measure the health of a tropical ecosystem than I ever will, but it was in matters of water that I felt the furthest out of my depth (I couldn’t resist). I ended up using the indicators that Rainforest Alliance employs, as well as their levels of tolerance, which felt like a cop out but better than relying on what I had been using until that point: my eyes and nose. If it didn’t look bad or smell bad, I figured it couldn’t be that bad, but if I were ever asked to defend myself, “it couldn’t be that bad” is more than cringe-worthy as a defense.
        The index never got past the testing phase, if you’re wondering, because every farm or mill that was certified organic scored higher than every farm or mill that wasn’t, which led me to think that we should recommit to organic agriculture as a better environmental alternative to conventional agriculture. Hence, save our soil and the ongoing campaign for better organic practices and better-tasting organic coffees!

  • Will Garde says:

    Hello Michael! I have been following your series on water with extreme interest. I am about to begin my master’s in environmental engineering, specifically focused on environmental hydrology at the University of Cincinnati. I’ve been surveying your posts in 2012 and you ask a lot of challenging questions, do you feel most of those questions have been answered in the past year and a half? Specifically those questions regarding policy and technology barriers?

    I was awarded a full fellowship to pursue my own research–giving me a blank slate for my thesis. With the growing awareness of water use in coffee production and the initiatives undertaken by these two companies, what do you believe is one of primary research objectives that needs to be flushed out in order for the specialty coffee world to insist on sustainable water resource practices?

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