Here’s why your morning coffee may be very unethical
The bitter reality of unsustainable coffee and what you can do to stop it
I will take the chance of coming across as blasphemous to the coffee lovers out there, but I have to admit that coffee had never been really part of my life, at least before University. Once I stepped into college world I soon understood that, without coffee, I would have not gone very far ahead. Eventually coffee became for me, as it does for thousands of students around the world, the perfect ally to shake off the morning tiredness caused by countless nights of late studying and partying.
Although the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has left its mark also on the coffee industry, causing, according to the International Coffee Organization, a fall in the year 2019–2020 by 0.9% in the global coffee consumption to 167.59 million bags, against the 169.11 million bags of the year 2018/2019, it is a matter of fact that nowadays, coffee became a major component of our lives and for most of us it is an indispensable drug, on which we get high on a daily basis.
However, given the nature of this blog, rather than dwelling on the emotions that coffee generates in us in the morning, I am called to address the bitter reality of (most) coffee production: highly unsustainable and environmental impacting. Before you stop reading and leave this page in rage (now we can’t even drink coffee in peace!), let me clarify from the start that an environmentally friendly coffee production is possible and it is already a reality in several areas of the world. But first, let’s see what makes coffee so impacting…after all, it is just a crop as any other, isn’t it? Well, not exactly.
Why mono-cropping coffee plantations are not sustainable
Given the high demand of coffee for the global market, the necessity to expand production areas, in the form of mono-cropping plantations, led to an increased deforestation activity with consequent ecosystem damage, loss of biodiversity and soil erosion (Karamage et al., 2016). In tropical soils, the loss of soil organic matter can take place within 5 years after the land use change occurred, causing a rapid decline in the soil fertility: what was before a rich soil is doomed to become, in the long run, a sterile soil unable to support a proper production (Raich, 1983). Sure, the high use of nitrate fertilizers in intensive coffee systems make it possible to achieve the desired yield for some time but causing, as a side effect, the contamination of the nearby water bodies due to leaching effects, impacting the aquatic wildlife. However, once the soil cannot sustain the production anymore due to erosion, loss of physical structure, nutrients and microorganisms, it is time to clear out another forest area, and the process starts again.
Water has a big impact on coffee production
Water demand is another big issue related to coffee production. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), estimated that one cup of coffee requires 140 liters of water for its production, processing, packaging and shipping. A study conducted in 2003 by the Institute for Water Education of UNESCO pointed out that more than 99% of the coffee water footprint is to actually grow the plants. This makes clear that the coffee sourcing area is vital, to reduce the water footprint: rain-fed production systems where precipitation is 3000 mm/year have a much lower impact than coffee grown (and irrigated) in areas were there is a 400 mm yearly rainfall.
Problems related to coffee production are also of social nature: according to the International Coffee Organization,
Between 20% and 30% of coffee farms are female-operated and up to 70% of labour in coffee production is provided by women. http://www.ico.org/documents/cy2017-18/icc-122-11e-gender-equality.pdf
However, despite the importance women play in coffee production, they have lower access to land, credit and information than men, resulting in a gender gap in economic outcomes, yield and productivity. Studies reported that women-led farms in Africa were between 23 and 35% less productive in terms of yield than male-headed systems (Aguilar et al. 2015) (Tiruneh et al. 2001). Revenues from selling coffee were also correlated with women empowerment, resulting in 39–44% lower income for female-headed households, than the male counterpart, in Ethiopia and Uganda respectively.
The role of costumers
Finally, at the consumer level, the use of coffee pods make the whole process of coffee production from “cradle to grave” even more impacting. Although it is true that brands, such as Nespresso, have started to produce fully-recyclable pods, the energy used to make them and the fact most consumer do not actually bother in reality to recycle the pods, arise the question if there may be better ways to drink coffee? Maybe a mocha machine for your coffee is a better solution.
In addition, most of the pods, despite being recyclable, are made up of different materials, which, after use, should be separated by the consumer and each of the components disposed in the correct bin: how unrealistic, for that to happen, does it sound?
So, what can we do to drink our coffee without feeling like we are committing an awful crime? Much easier than you may think: get certified coffee!
There are several International Coffee Certification Programs, each one with specific objectives, but all of them share a series of basic features.
- Certification provides economic incentives to farmers
- The coffee production is followed to check if it complies with certification guidelines (in terms of environmental and social sustainability)
- Before certification takes place, a verification step must be completed by an inspector from an independent certification agency
Now, next time you go to the grocery store, you know how you can keep drinking your coffee paying attention to your environmental (and social) footprint!
Question is, will you do it?
If you are interested about coffee, in the next article I will talk about how climate change will impact coffee production, stay tuned!
If you want to know more on (agro)ecosystem preservation techniques, you can find some useful information here:
Aguilar, Arturo, Carranza, E., Goldstein, M., Kilic, T., and Oseni, G. “Decomposition of gender differentials in agricultural productivity in Ethiopia.” Agricultural Economics 46.3 (2015): 311 334.
Karamage, F., Shao, H., Chen, X., Ndayisaba, F., Nahayo, L., Kayiranga, A., Omifolaji, J., Liu, T., & Zhang, C. (2016). Deforestation Effects on Soil Erosion in the Lake Kivu Basin, D.R. Congo-Rwanda. Forests, 7(12), 281. https://doi.org/10.3390/f7110281
Raich, J. W. (1983). Effects of Forest Conversion on the Carbon Budget of a Tropical Soil. Biotropica, 15(3), 177. https://doi.org/10.2307/2387826
Tiruneh, Addis, et al. “Gender differentials in agricultural production and decision making among smallholders in Ada, Lume, and Gimbichu Woredas of the Central Highlands of Ethiopia.” International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT),(2001).