Consider donating to relief funds for Hurricane Harvey or the monsoons in South Asia. Links are at the bottom for reputable charities providing relief in the areas.
In this edition of “What’s In Your Cup,” we turn towards the looming existential threat towards the human race: global climate change. Long-term, the effects of global climate change are catastrophic; the pictures that scientists paint of our future is bleak. Massive shoreline flooding is, of course, one of the more common expectations of global warming — but the meltdown of polar ice caps will also release tons (1.8 trillion, to be precise) of carbon and methane into the atmosphere (1).
Unfettered development has disastrous short term effects on local environments and response to local natural disaster; the problems of natural disasters are, in many ways, caused by humans. Hurricane response is an excellent example of this — city planners fail to account for the possibility of natural destruction as cities expand and, in the cases of Katrina and Harvey, these cities have little exit strategy for if a hurricane comes.
Coffee, too, suffers from a slew of man made problems that present both short and long term environmental problems. Beyond the typical rallying cry of environmentalists against K-Cups and wasteful mountains of styrofoam, we can identify points of tension that happen, essentially, at the point of production.
These may seem impossible for a consumer to change, but with different purchasing choices, we can envision new outcomes that could rattle the coffee industry.
Let’s begin with overproduction. In most farming, coffee production is speculative. Coffee companies can plan how much they expect to sell to a certain degree — but this is by no means all-knowing. So, coffee companies and farms are forced to speculate — they do not produce for need at all, but on a guess of how much coffee can be sold. The cost of this is immense — overproduction of coffee not only keeps prices down (forcing farmers into poverty, where they sell their beans for an incredibly low price), but also, results in massive waste at the consumer level (2). Grocery waste is a major issue — the US alone throws out $165 billion worth of groceries — and coffee is often among the wasted (3). Pre-ground coffee has a short shelf life (as it goes stale rather quickly) and not selling it quickly in-store can result in monumental waste. Fighting this means fighting speculation; if coffee producers were communicated demand before production, overproduction would hardly be an issue. This is a major benefit of the direct-trade, subscription model that we at Bean Voyage use — farmers do not overproduce at all for orders, as they are aware of exactly how much demand there is for their products.
Second, the complex chain of logistics. In another edition of What’s In Your Cup, we talked about the vast logistical chain that ties the coffee industry together (4). The process is a multi-continental one, as coffee moves from port to port across the world in an inefficient process of roasting, grading, growing, and selling. Logistics, too, are a massive environmental concern, and waste of time and resources can be destructive for the environment. The 16 largest ships in the world produce as much in greenhouse gas emissions as every car in the world; 16 ships alone spend that much gas, to say nothing of the vast fleets of the shipping industry (5). Again, this is a benefit of the direct trade model and the boon of single-origin coffee; cutting out the various middlemen in coffee production steamlines the logistical process.
Finally, farming itself can be destructive. In a study on the climate impact of Mexican coffee farming, researchers found that typical coffee production and expansion had a disastrous effect on coffee quality, longevity, and the local environment. Frankly put, coffee expansion destroyed all other plants; the resulting lack of biodiversity had, in turn, long-term damage on the soil. The reduction of shade typical in this type of farming (‘full-sun’ farming) reduces the quality of the soil. While a well-maintained coffee farm can be incredibly diverse and enriching for the environment, the industry emphasizes massive encroachment and quick development, as opposed to sustainable farming (7).
These problems are pervasive and damaging to the environment, but we don’t have to buy coffee like this. Coffee, when done in smaller scales and bought directly from producers, can be healthy and helpful to the environment. Consider buying from Bean Voyage or another direct-from-producer coffee brand to lighten the environmental impact and to support the long-term health of the planet.
Please consider donating to one of the following charities:
This month, we launched our training program for 40+ smallholder women from two regions in Costa Rica. The curriculum? A mix of technical and business skills. The first few sessions are focused on business skills to get everyone on the same page before learning about the technical skills related to coffee.