The Impact of Your Daily Cup O’ Joe

Oil consumption is by far the most discussed environmental issue in the United States. We are saturated with information about how it impacts our environment, controversy about where it comes from, and the often harmful practices that are used to harvest it. There is just cause for this discussion though; oil is, after all, the worlds most traded commodity. However, we often ignore the worlds second largest commodity and important human fuel source: coffee.

The International Coffee Organization (ICO) works as the main intergovernmental organization for coffee who not only works to strengthen the worlds coffee markets, but also keeps track of the amount of coffee bought and sold across the world. In 2010, the ICO recorded that the United States purchased 21,340,853 60 kilo bags of green (unroasted) coffee. That’s 2,816,992,596 pounds of coffee brought into the United States in one year. Starbucks bought 269 million pounds of that coffee. Coffee is a truly massive industry that grows even lager year by year. So, how does it impact the environment?

The potential impact that coffee has on the environment begins at the source. Coffee provides a livelihood for literally millions of people across the globe from tiny community farms producing less than 1,000 pounds of coffee per year, to huge “factory farm” style plantations that produce millions of pounds of beans. The impact of these small farms is much smaller than that of the larger ones for other reasons than just size. It is much easier and more cost effective for a small farm to use organic practices, causing less of an impact on their environment due to fertilizers and pesticides as well as increasing the return to the farmer. Larger farms that produce huge quantities of coffee almost always employ the use of chemicals to stop various bugs and diseases from invading their crops. Because these chemicals are usually under-regulated, the chemicals often negatively impact the surrounding communities. Pesticides and fertilizers can contaminate ground water and, with high enough concentration, can cause birth defects, hypertension, and some forms of cancer.

Deforestation is also an area of concern in the coffee industry. Seven of the ten countries with the highest rates of deforestation are in coffee producing countries in the Caribbean and South America. Farms looking to produce massive quantities of coffee find it easier to simply clear out the forest and plant coffee shrubs in rows where they can be easily maintained. Small farms often either have coffee already growing from past generations and are carrying on the family business, or they plant trees among the already present vegetation of the area. “Shade-grown” coffee is often use as a descriptor on coffee bags. This means that there is a canopy of trees around where the coffee is harvested that maintain the biodiversity of an area, as well as protecting the hundreds of birds and other species that call them home. Coffee is also a lover of shade and naturally occurring varieties will thrive and produce a higher quality fruit with proper shade.    

Coffee has a very specific growing region. While you could hypothetically grow it just about anywhere, it thrives between the tropics (Capricorn and Cancer) and at high altitudes. The highest coffee producing countries are currently Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia. The countries with the highest number of coffee imports are the United States, Germany, and Japan. This is where the environmental impact of coffee continues: there is a lot of space between these producers and consumers.

Most often, coffee is shipped in huge shipping containers that carry about 37,500 pounds of coffee each. These containers can be “mixed” meaning they contain coffee from multiple farms (a typical purchase of large, mass market roasters) or only one specific farm or region (more characteristic of specialty coffee roasters). The fact of the matter is it takes a lot of fuel to get that kind of weight across the ocean and numerous steps must be taken to get the coffee in to your cup every morning.

When a mass market roaster buys a lot of coffee, it passes through many hands before it actually reaches the consumer. Every country’s government has different stipulations when it comes to selling coffee, but the chain follows a pretty standard operation. In a situation where a farm is producing large amounts of coffee, the coffee cherries are picked, sometimes by machines, and brought to a larger sorting facility where the fruit is processed and dried. After reaching a state suitable for shipping, the coffee is placed in burlap sacks and brought either to auction or a shipping facility, depending on the country it is in. The coffee is purchased from farmers by exporters, who ship the coffee to where ever it will be consumed. Some extremely large farms export their own coffee or have previous arrangements with transnational coffee distributing or processing companies. The coffee is then purchased again by importers. The importers then sell the coffee again for a third time to roasters who will prepare the green beans for sale. After roasting and packaging the beans, roasters will either sell directly to customers or sell to retail shops who will then sell the coffee again to their customers. So, when you buy a bag of coffee from the grocery store, there is a good chance that you may be the fifth or sixth person to actually purchase those coffee beans. Not only does this process require a lot of steps and a lot of fuel, it leads to lower prices being paid to farmers and, in turn, lower quality coffee.       

The final impact comes from brewing coffee. Consider what goes into buying one cup of regular coffee from a coffee shop. The coffee must first be ground and brewed. If the cup is coming from a big batch of coffee, there are usually time limits for freshness that result in old coffee being thrown out, sometimes by the gallon. If the cup is brewed to order, heating up excess water to brew the coffee can nearly double the amount of energy being used. The coffee is then put in to a plastic-lined paper cup with a plastic lid and a cardboard sleeve. The coffee grounds that have been used are usually just thrown away, along with the paper filter.

So, how do we become better coffee consumers?

The first step is to ask questions. Any coffee shop that says they sell “sustainable” coffee should be able to answer a few basic questions: Where does this coffee come from? (not just the country, but at minimum the region and perhaps the specific farm). How was it produced? (organically, shade-grown, type of process, etc.) How much are the farmers paid? (Any coffee company worth their salt should be transparent about how their farmers are paid) Not only will these questions help you better understand what you are consuming, you will also find much higher quality coffee.

While a high percentage of mass market coffee is not sustainably produced, there are numerous companies that do things right and consider their impact in everything they do. Counter Culture Coffee is a great model of what a sustainable coffee company should look like. Their focus is on producing some of the highest quality coffee in the world while maintaining strong relationships with farmers, paying above Fair Trade prices to farmers, keeping 100% transparency with their customers, and leaving a tiny carbon footprint throughout it all. They have established their own direct trade certification, cut out all middle men when shipping, and are even on their way to carbon neutrality. Not to mention, all of their coffees are pesticide free, if not certified organic, are grown in naturally shaded environments and are characteristic of some of the most prized coffees in the world.

After buying coffee from a reputable company that has gone through the proper steps to ensure an environmentally friendly and high quality product, try brewing your coffee by the cup instead of using that old inefficient brewer you have had for 20 years. Using a product like a french press or manual drip brewer (see, Chemex, BonMac, or Beehouse) will not only make a delicious cup of coffee, it will allow you to control all variables behind brewing the coffee and will save energy. Only heat the amount of water you need. Only grind the amount of coffee you will actually use. Drink from a reusable mug. Compost your coffee grounds. All these steps will lead to a smaller footprint and far less waste from your morning coffee.

Companies like Counter Culture should be the first stop for the environmentally conscious coffee consumer. So often, people care about buying local produce and meats, join CSAs, and are conscious about buying organic, but still buy coffee without considering what goes in to it. Coffee is a massive part of world commerce and should be treated with the same care and consideration that people put into other food and drink. If we all were to consider where our coffee was coming from and who was producing it, not only would the worlds coffee farmers be much better off, but the carbon footprint and environmental impact of the coffee industry would be greatly decreased.

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