Articles

The true cost of coffee.

December 25, 2019


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using the link in the description. It’s the start of a new day. You roll out
from under the covers, stagger into the kitchen, and make a cup of the brew that will wake
you up and carry you through the morning: coffee. The liquid that fuels millions around
the globe. Offering caffeine and warmth to early-morning risers and late-night workers
alike. There’s little doubt that coffee is a staple commodity, but all this consumption
means it also holds with it ecological consequences. So today, I’m going to investigate the true
cost of coffee by asking two questions: What’s the environmental impact of growing coffee?
And why do we grow it the way we do? 500 billion cups of coffee are consumed globally
every year. And in the United States, where the coffee flows like water, drinkers consume
roughly 450 million cups a day. The popularity of coffee is undeniable. It’s the second
most traded commodity next to crude oil. But there’s something hidden in these massive
numbers: a stark split between the geography of coffee consumers and coffee producers.
The countries that import the most coffee, like the United States, Germany, and France,
are primarily situated in Europe and North America, while the biggest producers are situated
in the Global South, with countries like Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia exporting the lion’s
share of the world’s coffee. Essentially coffee plantations have sprawled across the
majority world to satiate the coffee addiction of the Global North. So when considering the
environmental impact of coffee it’s not just the visible waste t of unnecessary to-go
cups that we need to address, it’s also the impact that stretches back to–and is indeed
centered around– how coffee is grown. So in very simple terms, there are two ways of
cultivating coffee: shade-grown and sun-grown. Sun grown coffee is just another way to describe
the relatively new “technified” or industrial coffee farming systems. These production methods
were kickstarted in the 1970s and 80s by neoliberal policies championed by the United States Agency
for International Development (or USAID) and the World Bank, which sought to industrialize
supply chains to increase yields and drive down prices. But as many of the coffee growing
countries like Colombia and Brazil transitioned to this new technified way of farming, which
relied on chemical resistant and sun-tolerant coffee strains like Robusta coffee, they began
to experience the ecological burdens of this globalized system. Sun grown coffee relies
on large swaths of closely planted crops of coffee that are then grown without the protection
of shade trees, doused in chemical herbicides and pesticides, and then harvested in one
fell swoop using expensive technology, which is not unlike the monocropping techniques
applied to corn and soybeans in the United States. As a result of technification, smallholder
farmers in some cases are forced out of coffee production altogether, because they’re unable
to keep up with the crushing combination of high input costs of big machinery and the
low prices caused by competition with larger monocrop farms across the globe. This industrialized
coffee system can lead to numerous environmental issues like mountainside erosion, chemical
pollution in waterways, soil degradation, as well as deforestation. Sun grown coffee
is one of the most sprayed crops in the world. This not only causes ecological damage in
the form of runoff and species loss, but it also damages the health of workers at farms
where the chemicals are prioritized over safety equipment. As demonstrated in an article in
the Guardian, which revealed that Brazilian workers often complained of “difficulty
breathing, skin rashes and birth defects” after working with pesticides that were banned
in the EU. In a paper on the effects of coffee production and exports, Professor Kelly Austin
concludes that countries that depend on coffee as a primary export “produce unique and
especially harmful patterns [of] deforestation, hunger, and schooling” especially when compared
to other forms of agricultural production. Essentially, sun-grown coffee farmers are
stuck in a system that demands high yields and low prices at the expense of the environment
and the community around them. But there is an alternative method of growing
coffee. In fact, it’s how coffee has always been grown up until recently. Under the protective
cover of other trees. Shade-grown cultivation is the traditional system of growing coffee
that prioritizes a biodiverse landscape to build a healthy habitat for coffee plants.
Indeed, coffee plants prefer shade when they grow in the wild. This type of growing system
allows for a much more varied, and ultimately stable, method of growing coffee. By allowing
the coffee plant to thrive in its ideal habitat, it requires fewer chemicals and mechanized
input, and the trees that are intercropped with coffee not only provide shade, but they
have the potential to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. According to Project Drawdown,
which looks at the top 100 solutions to climate change, if more farmers adopt tree intercropping
systems like those used on coffee plantations, they could potentially sequester 17.2 gigatons
of carbon dioxide over the next thirty years. For context, the United States emitted roughly
6.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2017. This sequestration happens because
intercropped trees on a coffee farm in many ways mimic forests. As a result, this means
they have the added benefit of attracting a myriad of pest loving birds that act as
a natural insecticide for the coffee cherries. And unlike sun-grow monocultures, clearing
forest land for shade grown coffee production is unnecessary, and as a 2013 study on the
effects of traditional coffee systems on deforestation in Ethiopia shows, shade grown coffee can
help slow forest-loss. Alongside all of these environmental benefits, intercropping with
fruit or nut trees means a more diverse harvest and ultimately a more stable livelihood. Pairing
coffee plants with macadamia trees, for example, means that farmers not only get the yield
from coffee plants, but they also can reap the benefits of macadamia trees. This means
that if a coffee crop fails one year, it won’t necessarily spell disaster. So, yes while
overall yields might be a bit lower than a technified system, shade-grown coffee means
more economic security, less mechanization, and a healthier ecosystem. On top of all of
that, the coffee just generally tastes better. Ultimately, the industrialized system, while
good for higher yields (and higher profits for coffee corporations), has pushed coffee-growing
into an environmentally destructive activity. Shade-grown coffee clearly demonstrates that
coffee doesn’t have to damage the soil or its environment, in fact, traditional coffee
growing has been around for hundreds of years. The important thing here is to recognize where
and how this transition to an environmentally destructive practice is happening. So let’s
be clear, this didn’t just happen naturally. USAID and other global free-market-oriented
organizations like the World Bank have created the conditions for this switch. And the result
of transforming local economies of small traditional farms into larger global economies of industrialized
farms is that the coffee that gets consumed in North America and Europe wreaks environmental
destruction in the form of pollution and deforestation in the Global South. So as the Global North’s
addiction to coffee grows, and with it their demand for cheaper prices, they are essentially
exporting the environmental and social consequences of large scale coffee production onto the
majority world. When we looked toward the environmental impacts of coffee then, the
answer is not as simple as just buying single-origin, shade-grown varieties. That is important and
part of the solution, but we also must simultaneously understand that for more ecologically-sound
systems to prosper, they need a global economy that actively seeks to support and fund them.
One that prioritizes environmental health, communal well being, and quality goods and
stands in stark contrast to the current global capitalist system which seeks high production,
low prices, and growth regardless of environmental and social cost. If you’re exhausted of hearing my voice
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