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  • Writer's pictureTomos Morris

The Unsustainable Reality of the Coffee Industry and the Urgent Need for Change

Updated: May 22, 2023

Coffee is a caffeinated beverage that fuels a lot of our day-to-day lives. It is one of the most recognised beverages out there, from trendy sweet Starbucks drinks to high-end, rare, single-origin beans.

Not only is coffee an important product for consumers, but it also provides an essential livelihood for both students and graduates alike. Countless job opportunities are available in the coffee industry, from cafes to roasting to the very farms on which they are grown. This makes coffee a very important aspect of our economy, and figures indicate that demand is continuously on the rise.

This means that the coffee industry is a very important sector to improve in terms of its sustainability and carbon footprint. As it currently stands, the coffee industry is in dire need of improving on all fronts if it is to stay on track with sustainability goals, as many would hope it does.

So in this article, we will be exploring some of the aspects of the coffee industry in terms of its sustainability, and look at the environmental problems and solutions that are possible.

How important is coffee? Coffee is a cash crop, meaning that its growth and cultivation are for the sake of commercial growth instead of, say, personal consumption by the grower.

While this is the case, coffee has become an important cultural icon in our society. The caffeine it contains has stimulating effects, which help us with our busy lifestyles and schedules.

Outside the societal benefits of coffee, this crop has a variety of environmental advantages. Coffee is produced through a specific mode of agriculture known as agroforestry. This is when trees are deliberately combined with agriculture on the same piece of land. Coffee is a perennial plant, meaning that it photosynthesises throughout the year. Each day, these crops absorb CO2 from the air.

Another aspect of coffee is that it thrives in warm, humid, shaded environments. This results in a crop that can have exceptional flavour profiles in biodiverse regions.

Naturally, higher-quality coffee has a higher value.

As coffee circulates around the world, its product development suits a circular economy. This means that related waste and byproducts can be recycled and reused for better environmental sustainability.

How Many Countries Participate in Coffee Production?

Coffee is a global product, but it can only be grown along the Equatorial Latitude known as the ‘coffee belt." This geographical strip offers the ideal conditions for growing coffee and is covered by many countries.

As for the countries involved in coffee cultivation, there are 42 identified by ICO (the International Coffee Organisation), which constitute 93% of total coffee production.

There are, of course, other participating countries, yet their production figures are much lower and tend to be smallholder farms within local communities.

How Much Money Does the Coffee Industry Generate? Since there is so much global participation in the coffee industry, it comes as no surprise that the market currently stands at a value of over USD 110 billion and is forecast to grow further. Coffee beans are the second-most traded commodity on the international market after gasoline.

How Much Land Is Used in Coffee Production? More than 27 million acres of land are used to cultivate coffee. Land use is an important aspect of coffee farming. As demand for coffee increases, so does production. In some cases, the crops are grown on the land through the system of agroforestry, but in some other cases, deforestation has to be done to provide the necessary amount of land for growing.

This is terrible for the environment since trees are so important for removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Sadly, deforestation is more popular among business owners looking to quickly increase their product value since more cleared land means higher coffee yields. This reality is tied to the fact that increased demand results in increased production.

Therefore, further knowledge of land use is urgently needed if we are to work on and improve the ecological footprint of our coffee agriculture. Attitudes need to change regarding how we grow coffee. Also, our attitudes as consumers need to change so that demand does not reach dangerous heights. This is especially important as global production is increasing by about 2% annually.

How many emissions does coffee generate? Sadly, coffee is currently recognised as one of the most unsustainable foods. Its footprint is half that of one of the biggest culprits of CO2 emissions, beef. This also does not cover milk, so as it currently stands, the coffee industry poses some dire risks to climate change. One 15-gramme cup of coffee equates to 0.4kg of CO2.

While this does not seem like much; over 9.5 billion kg of coffee are consumed per year.

This also relates not just to the market but to the social culture surrounding it.

Latte art competitions provide an excellent example of this cultural excess. These are events where talented baristas compete with milk to pour the best shapes into cups of coffee.

While these events showcase the impressive artistic talents of coffee aficionados, the milk waste and lack of respect for milk are astounding. Offsetting in this way does not encourage a sustainable future for our coffee culture.

Since demand is so high, not just from consumers but also from the way coffee is celebrated, much more pressure is placed on the environment to supply this culture. The good news is that there is huge potential to cut the carbon footprint of coffee by up to 77%.

Coffee’s circular economy As stated earlier, coffee production suits a circular economy. This means that waste and by-products can be recycled, reused, and put back into the supply chain.

An excellent example of this is the use of coffee wastewater. After harvesting, coffee beans need to be washed. This process uses huge volumes of what eventually becomes wastewater. When released into larger water bodies after use, the excess chemicals and bodies carried by the water pose serious risks, harming the ecosystem.

Chemicals such as potassium can be high in this wastewater and are dangerous unless properly disposed of. To counteract this, the effluent can be treated, then used as fertiliser and for fertigation. For those that may not know, fertigation is the injection of fertiliser into irrigation systems, adding additional and desired nutrients to water systems.

Biodiversity in Coffee Farming Biodiversity refers to all the different kinds of life you will find in one area. This is important for the environment because the diversity of lifeforms within the ecosystems support each other to balance and support life on the planet.

The Kafa region in Ethiopia provides an excellent example of successful biodiversity in coffee farming. This protected biosphere is home to a variety of high-quality arabica coffee beans.

Coffee arabica is a specific type of coffee crop, or ‘varietal," that is used in most coffee shops around the world. It is opposed to other varietals, such as coffee robusta, which, while easier to grow, is characterised by a more bitter flavour.

Locations such as the Kafa Biosphere provide humid shade in which coffee plants can thrive. The alternative would be sun-grown monoculture agroforestry, which involves deforestation and chemical fertilisers, which encourage quicker coffee growth and higher yields. The problem with this is that it is harmful to the environment since the deforestation involved in these farms leads to higher global temperatures.

Not only does biodiversity allow for the cultivation of many different species of arabica coffee, but it also provides a lush environment for other plants, animals, and wildlife to thrive.

This overall results in an end product that absorbs the surrounding nutrient-rich soil.

The Trend of Sustainability So it seems like making the coffee industry more ‘sustainable’ is the solution to the environmental detriments of this product.

‘Sustainability’ is an increasingly popular term. It serves as one of the major keywords involved with fixing climate change. The term signals towards making positive changes in the world, including not just the environment but also our society and economy.

Within the coffee industry, there are efforts for improved sustainability as a generalised whole. However, some believe that this is more of a label attached to the industry to appeal to a wider audience. While it is beneficial to spread the message of sustainability, it can often be more of an empty term with little evidence to prove that businesses are making enough efforts.

As the term is so present in mainstream society, it runs the risk of losing its meaning and purpose, and sadly, there is no indication that global trends are making much of an impact on the more harmful aspects of industries such as coffee.

The Distant Future of Coffee There is no doubt that coffee is one of the most important global industries. It generates a substantial amount of money and dominates a large portion of the equatorial belt, and fuels our lives.

With so much at stake within the industry, however, more shortcuts are taken to meet the ever-increasing demand. This results in unnecessary deforestation and improper waste disposal, which overall harms our environment.

A correct understanding of sustainability within this industry can make things better, however, this can be done by sourcing from farms that use biodiverse farming methods and are conscious of a green, circular economy.

One of the best ways to make these strides is through better data collection. The more we understand about land use in coffee farming, the more we can start identifying the main environmental problems that we can then begin solving.

Lastly, it is also the responsibility of the consumer to consider other sources of caffeine and alternative lifestyles, so that high demands do not need to be matched through unsustainable means.

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