Iconic Italian Coffee Brand Calls For Regenerative Agriculture


Illycaffè is joining a new league of companies aiming to be zero-carbon in the near future. For the Italian coffee roaster, famous for its Arabica-based espresso blend, that target deadline is 2033, its 100 year anniversary.

“The mother of all causes now is climate change. It has to be a soil-to-soil carbon cycle. We need to sink carbon in the same soil where we grow our coffee,” says Andrea Illy, Chairman of Illycaffè, who is setting out to transition the company’s expansive network of coffee farmers to regenerative agriculture, which he refers to as “virtuous agriculture” in an effort to save coffee from the plight of climate change and help sequester carbon (thereby “de-carboniz[ing]” Illycaffe’s global footprint).

“By 2050, much of the land, about three-fourth of the land used to grow Arabica coffee, will not be suitable,” he says.

Increasing droughts, heavy rainfalls, and high temperatures are threatening the vitality of the coffee plant. In countries such as Brazil, which practice large-scale mono-cropping of coffee, and shade is quickly disappearing in deforested regions, coffee is particularly at risk, he notes.

Depleted soils that have been intensively farmed for decades, he says, are contributing to the problem. The solution is his virtuous project, based on the principles of regenerative agriculture: less tilling, cover crops, agroforestry, and fundamentally, a focus on soil health to trap carbon in soils.

Where the desire to enrich soils may not be enough, Illy is also keen to point out that organic practices require fewer inputs and in the long-run can be more profitable for coffee growers, who have been pinched by low global prices in the past few years. 

Though Illy notes that the company pays a premium to its growers for a higher-quality product, they’re also keen to help growers think long-term. “Yes, transitioning to regenerative practices will have a higher cost in the short-term, but at the same time, this technological package,” he says, “which consists of all the things a farmer needs — fertilizer, irrigation, for example— is becoming more expensive in places like Brazil. Growers are interested in these practices because it makes them less dependent on big agriculture companies, and more environmentally-friendly.”

And Illy wants to see how coffee growers can play a role in the larger, global dialogue around carbon sequestration. In East Africa, where coffee is grown amidst agroforestry (or wooded, shaded regions), he argues that coffee is more sustainable. But in the sun-kissed expanses of Brazil, it’s less so. If farmers move away from this latter form of farming, they can make the argument that by planting trees, re-introducing shade on their coffee plantations, they not only improve the quality of coffee, but also qualify for carbon credits.

Yet Illy notes that more research is needed right now to better understand how regenerative farming affects the soils of coffee growers. “There’s not enough money in the research of coffee. We need much more,” he says. Although currently Illy estimates there’s about $350 million going into this type of research, the need is “more like $1 billion.”

He’d like to see rich countries who consume coffee be a part of that solution and shift funds to low-income countries where much of the world’s coffee supply is grown. The World Bank, philanthropic community, and impact investors, he argues, can mobilize a lot more institutional finance into the future of coffee.

While Illy himself is passionate about these issues because of his background in chemistry and sciences, he also sees the dialogue shifting with his consumers. “People are definitely more interested in these environmental aspects,” he says. 

The pandemic has also affected how people are drinking coffee, and thus Illycaffè business model. Whereas before it would have been 60/40 with hospitality taking a larger share of their business and coffee consumption at home taking the smaller half, now the equation is reversed: more people are buying Illy for home, understandably. Thus, Illycaffè will “accelerate” the home business in the coming year, he says.

Either way, to produce an Arabica-based blend for Illycaffè iconic espresso blend, they’ll need more high-quality beans. And it’s these very Arabica beans that are under threat.

Illy hopes that their “pioneering” efforts in adapting regenerative agriculture through trial-and-error will create a ripple effect in the industry.

“Convention vs non-conventional agriculture, such as organic and regenerative, is like two different political parties,” Illy jokes. It can get heated. But Illy is making it clear that he’ll be on the non-conventional side to ensure that the supply chain his family has been dependent on since 1933 will be resilient enough to survive.



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