Not including water, coffee is the most widely consumed beverage in the world! In the US alone, about 200 million cups are drunk by an estimated 56 percent of the adult population on a daily basis. Coffee is produced in 53 countries (Brazil and Columbia being the biggest) and is made from the roasted seeds or beans of the coffee tree.
The environmental impact stems from both farming and consumption practices:
Chemicals and clear-cutting
Alongside tobacco, coffee is treated with more chemicals in the farming process than any other product farmed for human use. The use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers and genetically modified organisms in conventional coffee production not only destroys ecosystems surrounding plantations, but also puts the health of the farmers at risk. The heavy use of chemicals, which also pollute groundwater and soil, has become necessary as many coffee farmers have moved to full-sun growing methods, rather than the traditional shade-grown methods. Full-sun growing methods can yield three times as much coffee as shade-grown, but chemical treatments are required so that the coffee trees can withstand the heat and pests that full-sun brings.
The draw of larger yields from full-sun methods has also led to the deforestation of coffee plantations as worldwide demand for coffee grows. Since 1972—the year when new hybrids of coffee that thrive in direct sunlight were introduced—over 60 percent of the 6 million acres of land used for coffee production have been stripped of their trees. This has had a direct effect on biodiversity, namely the migratory songbird population that has steeply declined in recent years due to habitat loss. On coffee farms that have kept existing ecosystems intact, over 150 species of birds continue to thrive while on farms that have given way to shadeless growing only 20-50 species remain.
Beyond farming, paper products are a vital component to coffee culture and include takeaway cups, sleeves, and filters. According to the EPA US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), of the 45 million tons of paper products taken to landfills, one million tons of that figure came from disposable paper cups and plates.
Non-sustainable farming methods
Coffee production is currently in a state of crisis—an imbalance of supply and demand has been created due to a rapid increase in production that has failed to match the slower increase in consumption. Not only has this affected both farmers and natural ecosystems as more land is cleared for production, but the price of coffee now hovers near historic lows. While retail prices stay high, farmers are not profiting. According to Global Exchange: "Most small farmers sell directly to middlemen exporters who are commonly referred to as coyotes. These coyotes are known to take advantage of small farmers, paying them below market price for their harvests and keeping a high percentage for themselves. In contrast, large coffee estate owners usually process and export their own harvests that are sold at the prices set by the New York Coffee Exchange. However, extremely low wages ($2-3/day) and poor working conditions for farmworkers characterize coffee plantation jobs." This has led to social unrest, rural unemployment, and illegal immigration.
Fair Trade Certified Coffee
In the United States, Fair Trade Certified coffee is marketed under strict guidelines set forth by Transfair USA, a nonprofit organization that monitors fair trade practices in developing agricultural communities under the larger umbrella association Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International (FLO). Fair trade fosters an economically and environmentally stable relationship between North American consumers and farmers in Asian, Latin American, and African countries while promoting safe, humane labor conditions. Fair trade ensures that farmers make a living wage from their crop—a minimum of $1.26/pound.
Fair Trade Certified coffee is also environmentally friendly coffee. Fair trade coffee producers are commonly small holders who are unable to invest in environmentally damaging practices such as synthetic pesticides and clear-cutting, and instead direct premiums received for growing certified organic products toward concerns such as health care, housing, and education. The Organic Trade Association reports that around 85 percent of Fair Trade Certified coffee sold in the United States is also certified as being organic.
Rainforst Alliance Certified coffee
Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee is a type of coffee grown with environmental and social concern that often overlaps with organic and shade-grown coffee. Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee differs from Fair Trade Certified coffee in that it aims to improve the manner in which farms are managed rather than oversee the way in which coffee is traded.
To be certified, coffee farms must adhere to the guidelines set forth by the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN). These include ecosystem conservation, economic practicality, and humane treatment of farmers.
Like other agricultural products, methods have been developed to lessen detrimental environmental impacts when growing and harvesting coffee, including organic farming methods, which are free of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, as well as GMOs. Although organic coffee production is booming—in 2005 sales amounted to $89 million in the United States alone—it accounts for only about 0.6 percent of coffee sales worldwide according to the Organic Trade Association.
Shade-grown coffee is grown under the natural sun-filtering shade of rain forest canopies and therefore requires little or no use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and no clear-cutting. It is often certified and labeled as Bird Friendly coffee, and is frequently fairly traded and subject to predominately organic farming methods.
The growing trend toward eco-friendly alternatives to conventionally grown, mass-produced coffee does not go without censure. Fair Trade Certified coffee, in particular, has come under fire from economists claiming that the low price of coffee is due to overproduction and that the appeal of fair trade premiums is, in turn, triggering more and more coffee production when farmers should be switching to other crops. As a result, the price of non-fair Trade coffee drops and non-fair trade farmers sink deeper into poverty. Another objection to fair trade is that it is ineffective in relaying funds to poor producers. In addition to the higher base price of Fair Trade Certified products, retailers tack on additional mark-ups which leads consumers to believe that all of the extra premiums that they are paying go directly to the producer. In reality, a very small percent reaches the producer, reports economist Tim Harford.
The move toward organic farming has also received a fair amount of criticism. Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, believes organic farming techniques to be detrimental to the environment. In a December 2006 issue of The Economist he cites that the low yields of organic farming calls for the destruction of more land while the use of the synthetic fertilizers allows farmers to harvest vast amounts of, for example, coffee, in a small area of cultivated land. Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on high-input crops that have increased world food supply, but has been criticized because of the resultant increase in reliance on monoculture cropping and inorganic fertilizer use.
Related health issues
The caffeine found in both conventional and organic coffee is known to be an addictive stimulant and when not consumed in moderation, can lead to health-related issues such as increased heart rate and blood pressure. Heavy coffee consumption can also yellow the teeth. Additionally, heath risks can arise from the chemical residue on pesticide-sprayed, conventionally grown coffee. The higher quality coffee beans farmed using organic methods contain less acid and caffeine and, therefore, are gentler on the human body.
- genetically modified organism: The merging of the genetic make-up of two organisms, resulting in a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature.
- bird friendly coffee: A variation of Latin American grown shade coffee, certified by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, that is guaranteed to be both shade-grown and certified organic by a third-party.