As of 2011, the top five biggest commodities in the world were (in descending order) crude oil, coffee, natural gas, gold and Brent oil. As a first note, the presence of three fossil fuels in this list means that there is still a long way to go in the transition to a low carbon economy. But, yes, what I was actually trying to point out is that coffee is the second biggest commodity in the world. An estimated 1.6 billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide every single day, with an estimated 55 million in the UK.
As former president of the University of Manchester Coffee Connoisseurs Club (UoMCCC), I set out to try and establish what kind of impact drinking coffee has on the environment, whether it is an issue that so much of the stuff is consumed every day and to what extent it can be sustainably sourced.
Fair Trade coffee has become widely available in recent years, with many big brands displaying the Fair Trade logo on their packaging. In the UK, almost 25% of total coffee sales are Fair-trade – a proportion which is steadily growing. This is certainly a step in the right direction regarding the coffee industry’s treatment of humans. Regarding treatment of the environment, on the other hand, it is not so obvious that improvements are being made.
Can’t see the woods for the lack of trees
Coffee is naturally found and traditionally grown, in tropical and subtropical regions of the world, in forested and often mountainous areas. Under the canopy of trees, the coffee plant is sheltered from constant direct sunlight. The rich biodiversity means the soil in which it lives is healthy and, further, there are few pests which are able to damage the crop before being swooped up by a predator. A human seeking to harvest coffee beans from such a plant cannot expect to get the greatest yield for a unit area, but at least the crop was grown in keeping with nature and without any need for pesticides or herbicides.
Since the 1970’s, monoculture and sun-grown coffee have become the norm. It was recently reported that
“By the end of the 1990’s, sun or reduced-shade cultivation systems accounted for almost 70% of Colombia’s land area devoted to coffee and 40% of Costa Rica’s.”
By clearing away regions of forest, farmers were able to increase their yield. In Central America alone, 2.5 million acres of forest have been cleared for coffee farming. Clearly, this deforestation results in the utter destruction of ecosystems far older than our society and which are among the most delicate on Earth. In the world of coffee, there is a tragic trade-off between a higher yield and less ecological damage. Needless to say, the cutting down of trees implies a reduced capacity of the natural world to absorb climate warming CO2, especially when applied on an industrial scale.
By removing the other flora and fauna which originally lived in harmony with coffee crops, the soil quality degrades and pests have free reign, meaning fertilisers, herbicides and and pesticides are the commonly used, as in the majority of global agriculture. Clearly, less than perfect handling of these chemicals can lead to further ecological problems such as water pollution and contamination.
Of course, many of the ecological problems discussed above are not unique to coffee and apply to many other crops grown in hot conditions. One factor that is particularly relevant, however, is waste.
As can be seen in the diagram opposite, the marketable product which is the coffee bean is just one, inner part of the harvested fruit, known as the coffee cherry. As any coffee connoisseur will be aware, there are many different processes by which the pulp is separated from the bean such as honey processing, natural processing, semi-dry/wet-hulled processing, washed processing… The enormous variety of flavours of coffee available on the market may be attributed largely to these different methodologies, which have heritage in different parts of the world from Ethiopia, to Indonesia, to El Salvador. Despite differences in what is done after harvest, each of the methods eventually discards the pulp and many require additional water and labour.
For the coffee connoisseur, the diverse range of coffee processes, origins and formats (from espresso, to siphon, to frappe-latte-mochachino), is astounding. The sad truth is that in order to obtain this diversity, an even richer diversity is often sacrificed – that of age-old ecosystems.
In the hands of the consumer
Unlike some crops sold on the international market, which are flown, coffee is usually transported by freighter ship or train, meaning that the environmental aspects of its transportation are not so bad. However, once on the shores of the consumer, yet more problems abound.
Not least of these are the problems of the waste theme, such as disposable coffee cups. An estimated 25,000 tonnes of waste is generated by the coffee industry in the UK alone, with 2.5 billion single-use coffee cups thrown away each year.
Further, if you decide to save money and brew your beverage at home, there are climatic impacts due to the fact that the kettle is a profoundly energy intensive device. Assuming you do not have a renewable power source, a recent investigation at Imperial College London revealed that boiling 1 litre of water in the average electric kettle results in approximately 70g of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. England’s all-time highest TV-related electricity demand surge was during half-time of the 1990 World Cup semi-final with West Germany, when the whole country went and put their kettles on to make a brew.
Now I am not going to propose that everyone should give up coffee and all hot beverages along with it, for the sake of the environment. But there are certainly ways in which changes in the consumer habit could lessen the impact of the coffee industry on the world we inhabit.
In direct terms, only boiling enough water as is needed and carrying a reusable cup are two commonly given, but far less often followed, pieces of advice which need no further explanation.
Sustainable coffee does exist. Recent attempts involve shade grown coffee, which mimics the way coffee grows naturally, in tune with nature. Whilst coffee grown in this way is sometimes more expensive, its environmental impacts are much less than the conventional farming methods, the social responsibility is significantly higher and the benefit for ecosystems is great. The Huffington Post recently reported the head of sustainable agriculture at Rainforest Alliance, Chris Wille, as saying that
“Our scientists say a certified coffee farm is the next best thing to rainforest,”
regarding shaded farms. In some cases, these products are even equivalently priced to sun grown coffees. Surely there is no good reason for an environmentally conscious coffee lover not to consider switching to shade grown coffee.