Date released
06 June 2023

Coffee - Whether you drink it daily, or just on those especially cold winter mornings, it’s iconic. So iconic that there are an estimated 1 billion global consumers every day.

In Papua New Guinea (PNG), coffee is the second largest agricultural export (after oil palm), employing over 2.5 million people. Smallholder farmers, meaning those with less than 5 hectares (remember 1 hectare is about the size of a rugby field), grow the largest share of coffee, over 95% in fact! These smallholders employ techniques of shading, pruning and reduced fertiliser-application to increase coffee quality and boost ecosystem health. In recent decades, PNG’s small-scale, low-input coffee systems have produced increasing amounts of organic and specialty products. So you may be wondering, what’s next?

Typica coffee seedlings ready for planting
Images: Typica coffee seedlings ready for planting in research trial sites
Coffee beans in bags
Images: PNG-grown green beans (unroasted coffee) ready for export

Imagine you’re holding a morning cup of coffee in your hands. Have you ever considered where that coffee comes from, whose hands picked it, or the conditions under which it was grown? What about its carbon footprint by the time it reaches you? Some imagine a future where PNG coffee farmers engage in growing global carbon markets opportunities, selling sustainably produced carbon-neutral coffee.

Funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), my Honours project (supervised by Dr Steven Crimp from the Australian National University) sought to answer these questions. The research aimed to investigate methods of quickly and reliably measuring the on-farm carbon footprint of coffee grown in PNG’s Eastern Highlands Province.  

Group of researchers in coffee field
Image: ANU research team visiting shade coffee trial sites in Kabiufa, near Goroka, PNG.

Carbon footprint calculators

Now you are probably asking yourself ‘why measure carbon and how is it done’? Long story short, carbon farming is a known avenue for improving the sustainability of rural livelihoods. It is the concept of using inherent properties of soil and vegetation to sequester greenhouse gases (GHG) from the atmosphere. Diversifying smallholder plots with multiple crops and increasing biomass through cover crops and agroforestry are two methods of increasing carbon content. Effective carbon farming leads to healthier farming ecosystems and higher-quality crops.

Now onto the ‘how’. The answer could be carbon calculators. These are Excel spreadsheets or online platforms (exciting, I know) that translate raw farm data into emission estimates. Carbon calculators consider factors like climate, crop variety, soil type, irrigation, fertiliser and management strategies, to estimate for example, how much carbon is produced or sequestered per kilogram of green bean (unroasted) coffee leaving a PNG smallholder coffee growers’ farm gate.

Coffee berries on coffee plant
Image: Coffee berries ready for harvest at Riverside Coffee Cooperative near Goroka, PNG.

Diving into the details

The research identified all carbon calculators in global circulation and prioritised those which were designed to quantify farm-level emissions from agriculture. This process left 36 calculators… but who’s counting. We then subjected the calculators to a set of exclusion criteria, filtering out ‘inappropriate’ calculators. For example, a tool designed to measure the carbon content of a cattle grazing property in Scotland probably won’t do a very good job of measuring carbon in PNG coffee systems.

With the help of PNG smallholder growers, coffee exporters, industry and government representatives, and local researchers, we attempted to capture the social, cultural, environmental and economic values that made PNG coffee unique in these exclusion criteria. This was an invaluable step to ensure the research was co-designed by those who it influences.

A huge thank you goes out to Mawe Ganapa and the field trial team, Monpi Coffee Exports, and Coffee Industry Corporation for taking the time to inform this research.

The information gathered was an interesting insight into competing priorities and helped to identify a carbon calculator that worked for as many project partners as possible. The top calculator, the Cool Farm Tool, was designed in the United Kingdom for use worldwide. Its easy-to-use online interface, proven performance in coffee, and ability to capture the subtleties in smallholder systems shows promise for use in PNG coffee.

Research in coffee field
Image: ANU PhD student, Mawe Ganapa
Coffee Industry Corporation building
Image: Coffee Industry Corporation (CIC)

PNG Coffee – a carbon-neutral future?

Imagine you’re still holding that morning cup of coffee. You purchased the bag of beans down the street from a vendor who supplies PNG coffee. They certify the coffee beans as carbon-neutral using the Cool Farm Tool carbon calculator, promoting sustainable coffee production and farmer livelihoods in the PNG Eastern Highlands Province. If done thoughtfully, this could be an accessible future of PNG coffee and other Pacific agroforestry industries like cocoa and black pepper.

There is no doubt there is significant work left to do before this can become a reality. Even the ‘best’ carbon calculators have their issues with reliability, accuracy and accessibility in smallholder settings. This is only one approach to a complex challenge but one that helps us work towards production of sustainable coffee for all.

Display of coffee beans through lifecycle
Image: Lifecycle of coffee at Riverside Coffee Cooperative
Women displaying handmade bag
Images: Handmade bilum gifted by the field trial team.

Check out ACIAR’s current coffee research

  • ‘Improving Livelihoods of Smallholder Coffee Communities in Papua New Guinea’ (ASEM/2016/100)
  • ‘Protecting the Coffee Industry from Coffee Berry Borer in Papua New Guinea’ (HORT/2018/194)
  • ‘Increasing the Sustainability, Productivity and Economic Value of Coffee and Black Pepper Farming Systems and Value Chains in the Central Highlands region of Vietnam’ (AGM/2018/175)

Mikayla Hyland-Wood is a Graduate Research Officer at ACIAR. Learn more about the ACIAR Graduate Program.