Good morning sunshine! Or maybe not, if you haven’t had that critical cup of coffee in the morning. Coffee leaves us feeling energetic, happy, satisfied and ready to go. But how is one of the world’s most sought commodities produced and discarded? Let’s find out more about the ecological impacts of the supermarket-cheap, planet-expensive coffee industry and what we can do to help.
A brief story on what rules the world? Coffee!
The legend says that a shepherd from the 11th century in the Ethiopian highlands noticed that his sheep were more active after eating the berries of a certain plant. After trying it and also feeling more energetic, the shepherd went to a monastery to share this news with the local monks. The monks found out that this drink helped them to fight off sleep during periods of prayer and meditation and spread this discovery to other monasteries, creating the first demand for coffea (the plant of coffee).
Coffee soon spread to the Arabic region and later to Europe, whose demand lead the Dutch to start growing crops in Indonesia, followed by the French in their colonies on the Caribean and it wasn’t long until it reached Brazil. The land of the Amazon rainforest quickly turned into the largest producer and exporter of coffee beans in the world and in 2017 it produced 3.09 million metric tons of coffee beans, around 1/3 of the world’s total production, of which 1,65 million metric tons were exported. After Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, and Ethiopia make up the top 5 global producers of coffee.
In September this year, the International Coffee Organization (ICO) estimated that the world production of coffee for 2018 will be 5.7% higher than in 2017, which means that 9,9 million tonnes are expected to be produced until the end of the year. But are we drinking all this coffee that is being produced and sold? Not really. In fact, a lot of these coffee beans aren’t mere commodities used for brewing pure coffee, they also provide caffeine for beverages (like coke) and have interesting properties for the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries. And where on Earth do all these beans go to? Well, the US is the top biggest importer of coffee with a total purchase of US$6.3 billion (20% of the global market) in 2017, followed by Germany, Italy, and Japan. So we know who gets the coffee (mostly the US, with an average of 1,96 cups per day, which is still less than the average of some Scandinavian countries like Finland) and where it comes from. But how is it being grown?
The ecological impact of growing coffee – from the shade to the sun
Because coffee plants evolved in the understory of the East African jungle, they were grown only in shade for the first several hundred years of human cultivation. But in the mid-20th-century, scientists started to believe that growing coffee in direct sunlight could increase photosynthesis, prevent disease and allow greater density of shrub planting. This put pressure on farmers to cut down the tree canopies that shaded their shrubs. Nowadays, we’re compensating for the loss of natural insect-killing birds and bats (due to having fewer canopies) and for the fact that monocultures are more easily subject to plagues by applying more pesticides. On the other hand, due to the loss of the trees’ soil-fertilizing leaves and roots more synthetic fertilizers started being used.
But playing chess with a 4.5 billion years player like nature can be tricky. And the fact is that pesticides, apart from killing plages of insects and weeds, have side effects such as the contamination and exhaustion of the soil (accentuated by the lack of crops’ rotation), water or turf and they are toxic to other plants, fishes or birds that get them indirectly. As well, the need for space to grow more crops (of coffee, but also corn, soybean, wheat or rice) has been leading to the deforestation of many forests, which means eliminating a crucial habitat for native wildlife, such as tropical birds and monkeys and leaving the soil more susceptible to erosion and fragile to face climate change events.
So farmers are clearing their lands, practicing single-crop agriculture and at the same time facing challenges such as the chemical degradation of the soil, the resistance of plagues and the fight for fair wages. And in a balanced world with known and determined food chains, we know that killing the bottom consumers will endanger the whole chain and ultimately the planet, as each consumer has a role to play in keeping the world’s ecosystems, which we cannot live without, working. After all, with so many pawns being sacrificed, science has been showing us that this wasn’t such a great move after all, and innovative ideas and responsible businesses and investors are needed to tackle the problems with the growing demand for coffee and other crops as our population and the world’s mid-class (that will likely consume more) grow. But is there any better way?
The impact of organic, certified, fair-trade coffee
As consumers that in a big number are able to influence economic demand, there is always a role we can play. It is hardly impossible for an ordinary citizen to influence local legislation, force producers to make crop rotations and reduce pesticides (probably increasing production costs and sales prices and leaving businesses less competitive) and reconcile this with a growing demand.
But while we’re waiting for these solutions to come, it is possible to buy organic coffee, in which producers cannot use synthetic substances such as most pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. As well, buying certified coffee like UTZ or Rainforest Alliance would also be good for the planet since these standards prove that producers are being compliant with ecology-friendly practices. Another choice could also be to get fair trade coffee, whose business model make sure that small producers get a decent wage and a fair share of profits that in most cases stays for the big intermediates and retailers.
In addition, we also have a saying in the way we choose to consume coffee. And the truth is that we have been choosing to consume coffee in ways that create unnecessary waste such as plastic or plastic-aluminum capsules. In fact, the coffee capsules market was valued at USD 14.74 billion in 2017 and is expected to register a compound annual growth rate of 7.1% during 2018-2023. But the fact is that these capsules are either not recycled or if they are, like a few companies seem to be doing, a lot of energy (and CO2) is spent in this process, as some studies have been showing. Is there any more ecological alternative?
The ecologic impact of coffee – what alternatives?
Remember the old-school ways of brewing coffee? Buying it grounded in medium-large packages and putting it into a coffee plunger, plastic filter or paper (compostable) filters, or inside aluminum or stainless steel pots, not to mention instant soluble coffee? In fact, this could well turn into the new fashion, as it’d create less waste and, in some cases avoid the CO2 emissions associated with recycling capsules or waste creation. Nevertheless, we can’t say with certainty what is the best way of brewing coffee, as it depends on the electricity grid and recycling structure of each city/country and on a person’s habits – in some cases, if more too much water is boiled and too much coffee used, water, coffee, and energy are being wasted.
But if you’re really in love with this single expresso texture and the noise of the machine brewing your coffee, then perhaps a paper pod (totally compostable) coffee machine instead could be a good option too. Afterward, if you’re living in a place where you have an organic waste bin for making compost, place your coffee waste over there and voilà, you did the best you could with the coffee you chose to buy and consume. In case you don’t have an organic bin in your town, look for a closeby farmer where you can leave it or speak with your city hall and try to find out an ecological solution. You don’t usually drink it at home and you’re more of the takeaway coffee from Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts or Costa type? No worries, you can take your own reusable cup and you’ll be doing your part as well!
Furthermore, we can always reduce the amount of coffee we buy and consume, choosing other products instead (like green tea or matcha) or even trying body awakening practices such as active breathing techniques that also have energizing outputs. This is what we can try to do to help minimize the ecological impacts of coffee as citizens and consumers. But gladly there are many innovative scientists and entrepreneurs amongst us and some great solutions, like using coffee waste to grow mushrooms or, more recently, a team of scientists that developed a fuel cell that uses microbes that eat the waste matter and generate a small amount of energy, are being developed. Sustainable finance plays and will play a fundamental role in supporting and helping ideas and business models like these to grow. But in the meantime, while these innovations don’t get mainstream and part of our daily routines, we can still do our part. I will. Will you?