Coffee--the second most exported product in the world. You can probably guess the first.
In our recent episode with Kaffe Bueno, we discussed innovation in coffee, from better relationships with farmers to the upcycling of coffee grounds for oil extraction to produce beauty products. Part of this profit then goes back to the coffee farmers.
Our discussions, while fruitful, also brought about other questions as to what the consumer-end can do first hand to make sure the coffee they consume is sourced from producers taking into consideration better land management practices and worker compensation. We need to take into consideration the sacrifices made in the production of coffee.
About 140 litres of water is needed to produce a cup of coffee from the growing the bean to the final brew. And about 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed annually.
While traditional coffee farming applies agroforestry-- a combination of forest cover and coffee plants-- farming now has vastly changed to incorporate the "sun cultivation" method. While this method is known to produce the most beans, it is at the cost of deforestation and biodiversity loss. In Central America alone, 2.5 million acres have been cleared for the sake of coffee farming. About 70% of available farmland in Colombia is used for coffee cultivation and 40% in Costa Rica.
Traditional agroforestry methods for growing coffee supported local biodiversity. With such deforestation, ground exposure, and monoculture, much biodiversity is lost. This is particularly impactful as tropical ecosystems tend to consist of the highest amount of biodiversity in the world.
Not only that, soil erosion and land degradation are other factors that contribute to further negative environmental impacts. The wide application of pesticides and fertilizer contributes to chemical accumulation in soils. With soil exposure due to lack of forest cover, erosion is more prone to happen.
Furthermore, coffee processing is a source of environmental pollution and waste production. As a result of bean processing, water pollution occurs as organic materials make their way to local natural water resources, resulting in potential eutrophic conditions that threaten aqualife. As the coffee beans are separated from the cherry fruit itself, a large amount of organic waste (cherry pulp) is produced, exacerbating water pollution and emitting methane when sent to landfills.
Last but not least, we need to take into consideration the climate change impacts on coffee production. Climate change will exacerbate pest problems. Increased temperatures, droughts, and more intense rain events will cause declines in crop production as well. This will not only increase the price of coffee around the world, but also threaten the livelihood of farmers.
It's difficult to discuss coffee without discussing the lack of social welfare and protection for coffee farmers, many of whom are exploited. The lack of direct trade means that coffee produced from farmers is passed through a series of middlemen, each hoping and needing to gain profit. Therefore, it gets complicated to trace where a particular bean is sourced from and this leaves farmers exposed to harsh work conditions and poor wages. By the time beans reaches the final buyer, we do not know who produced it, making it all the more difficult to enforce better regulations that ensure equality and fair compensation.
Additionally, much of the coffee industry is dominated by big players who, in the end, get a lot of say in regulating it. The constant competition results in undercutting by larger farmers, leaving smaller farms exposed as they are unable to keep up with low prices in the market.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Yes, it seems that the coffee industry is quite grim, but the truth is that not many of us want to stop consuming coffee. The question is-- how do we consume coffee in a more responsible manner? Remember, consumers (you) hold much of the power to change by deciding how you spend your money.
However, are these labels, such as Fairtrade, reliable? MOST DEFINITELY NOT, but it's a start. So, what more can you do?
Find "DIRECT TRADE." This may come in the form of a local coffee shop with an enthusiastic store owner who seeks someone out to travel to farms to observe and trade directly with farmers. This reduction in middlemen and near first hand observation of bean quality, environmental considerations, and fair compensation serves greater than buying any certified coffee.
Sounds rather out of one's way to find coffee, right? But we need to consider the ecological footprint we are putting on other countries, many of which are socioeconomically disadvantaged.
It's good to see that more and more coffee shops and brands are taking into consideration these aspects. Nonetheless, we recommend that when you find your preferred bean, sourced in a responsible manner, just stick with it.