Coffee: a sustainable drink?

Undoubtedly, coffee is one of the most common beverages consumed by human beings daily. The origin of this habit are remote and often forgotten but the pleasure of a hot cup of coffee in the morning has been delighting us for centuries now. Does this drink imply the environment? Let’s find out, as always, together.

Photo by Igor Haritanovich on

From bean to cup

Coffee is a particular plant that enjoys plenty of sunlight. Not surprisingly, it grows only at tropical latitudes, between the tropic of Cancer and the tropic of Capricorn (respectively 23.5° N and 23.5° S). After being planted, the first harvest of coffee beans usually happens after 5 years of growth. During these 5 years, farmers have to look after the plants, make sure pests and diseases are kept at bay, investing money while waiting for their first revenue.

Speaking of revenues, the coffee industry is the second most-traded commodity, after oil. However, out of the estimated $60bn per year generated, 10% is earned by farmers, who often are paid back all the time and risks they took. Investing always comes with a risk: common practices of preventing lose, such as differentiating, do not apply to this sector: farmers can decide to grow different crops, different techniques, but eventually, the only product they will try to sell are coffee beans.

To summarize a very intricated chain from bean to cup, here is the journey of coffee (many intermediate steps have been removed to keep it simple).

FarmCoffee beans are picked and washed
MillCoffee beans are dried and processed
ExporterCoffee beans are graded and stored while waiting for a buyer (often overseas)
FreightCoffee beans are shipped to the destination
ImporterCoffee beans are inspected before being delivered to customers 
RoasterCoffee beans are roasted, packaged and delivered to customers (supermarket, coffee shops, restaurant)
RetailThe final product (coffee) is sold to customers
Stages of coffee production: form bean to cup

The social impact of coffee

Before going into the environmental impact of the industry of coffee it is worth mentioning the social impact that this popular drink has. Like in many other industries, the price of coffee fluctuates based on supply and demand. In this uncontrolled market, some unexpected catastrophes have happened in the last century. When supply is low, many farmers from poor countries see an opportunity of making money because of high prices for demand and so they rush into redesigning their farms to dedicate them completely to coffee production.

After a decade or so, once the plants start to produce beans regularly, the demand will lower, and so the price per kilo of coffee beans, resulting in increasing level of poverty in parts of the planet that already have a lower index of GDP. So, as it is often the case, decisions and habits of consumers of one side of the world have strong implications on the quality of life in less fortunate parts of the planet. After a catastrophic fall in prices in the early ‘90s, schemes such as FairTrade developed: their goal is to establish a direct relationship between farmers and retailer so they can get a fairer price for their products and buyers can monitor the production and processes more closely. More about it here.

Coffee beans in an Indonesian farm. The beans are initially green and turn red once they’re ready for harvest. The will be washed and dried before getting the iconic brown colour. Picture by Gianluca Di Marco.

Environmental impact of coffee

Coming back to the environmental aspect, what could be the major implications for our planet caused by the coffee industry?

Given the long journey from the plant to our cup, it could come naturally to think about the embedded emissions of the whole freight. However, coffee is a product that is (probably) never travelling by plane and it can be stored for a long period of time, therefore it can easily be included in the list of tropical treats that, in a low carbon future, we could keep enjoying.

But, as it is always the case in agriculture, the main issues are recurring and are the following: deforestation, landscape modification, excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides.

WWF estimated that 2.5 million acres of forest have been cleared in central America for coffee farming. The social impact of coffee in rural communities is huge, often is the only source of potential income, therefore villagers in poor countries try to maximise the profits by increasing the number of crops cultivated. To do so, they need the space occupied by the largest carbon storage of the planet: the Amazon basin.

Landscape modification occurs because of the change in the techniques of coffee farming. I had the opportunity of visiting a few coffee plantations in Indonesia and they were all respecting the “old” (more appropriate to say the “real”) way of farming: they let the plant grow in something that resembles a huge group of bushes and they did not clear the way to make space for machines: farmers were walking around these bushes and when the time came they were hand-picking coffee beans. This farm setting not only respected the natural cycle of the plant but also encouraged biodiversity: the plantations are full of insects and animals, that are able to find food and shelter in this thick labirinth. I also believe that such dense vegetation offers also some climate mitigation in this particularly hot belt: I always visited them during the hottest time of the day but when entering the plantation it was easy to notice the freshness, something that resembles a walk in a deep forest on a summer day.

On the other hand, modern plantation, as well as clearing forests to make space for crops, also remove the shade provided by these trees, leaving the plant in full sunlight to encourage and accelerate speed. 

The excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides is a direct consequence of biodiversity loss. I do not know which are the potential parasites of coffee plants but I am sure that trough evolution, coffee plants have developed defences against these attacks. And, like most of the plants, the pesticides used by them are insects, fungi or animals that are attracted because they feed on the parasite that is feeding on the plant itself. I really don’t think it is smart to use chemicals to keep away parasites that are attacking the plant only because we removed vegetation that provided life opportunity to natural predators of these pests. The best solution, as always, would just be to let nature be, harvest a bit less but better.

I don’t want to pass the idea that farmers are bad people: they most certainly do that to provide for their family that usually live in unstable and poor condition. In a sustainable future, I see people who don’t need to maximise profits because of hunger by depleting the natural environment: these people will be educated and the food production will be shared more evenly. Once again: we have food, we just don’t share it properly.

Can we change this trend?

But before that, we can still play our part. I will never stop insisting on how much difference we can make as individuals and consumers. DO NOT BUY COFFEE WITHOUT A CERTIFICATE. If it has a certificate, dig deeper, check if the producer is involved in some kind of schemes to help farmers. If we support a sustainable market among unsustainable choices, the future will be made of sustainable products. Do not be scared of spending some extra money on that: when there is a new discovery it is usually affordable by wealthy people. By purchasing these goods, they fund research aimed at making the product more affordable to the general public so producers sell more and more people have this product available. If we spend some more on products that are cruelty-free, do not travel by air and are organic, we will finance this market, hoping it will be the major and more accessible market in the future.

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