Coffee: a closer look at your morning cuppa

Written by Josh Ford

On June 4, 2020

If you are anything like me, you enjoy your habitual morning cup of coffee, and take some interest and pride in the blend you choose. With the coffee plant natural to the tropical regions on the equator (AKA tropic or “bean belt”), British shoppers choose various far away sources for our beans. But you can make a big sustainable difference in the product you select.

Coffee beans come from the cherries of the coffee plant, and there are two main varieties; Arabica and Robusta. Coffee grows in many nations situated in the tropics, preferring the mid-elevation climates of Latin American, African and Asian countries. The industry remains overwhelmingly operated by small farms, with much of the value remaining in the roasting and final branding stages of the long value chain. Organisations such as Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade serve to rebalance power and earnings back towards growers.

From an environmental perspective, the biggest concern arises around the water use and pollution from the growth and production stages. Coffee requires a lot of water, with estimates of 140 litres per single cup, across the growth, mill, roast and brew stages. Often the cherry fruit is wasted, processed using a water intensive milling technique to remove the bean and wash it. This organic by-product is sometimes repurposed as organic fertilizer, but also often wasted and washed away the local rivers. This leads to a process called eutrophication, which is basically a nutrient overload to the ecosystem.

Why should we be concerned about eutrophication?

With plant matter in the rivers feeding on the fruit by-product, they bloom rapidly, removing all the oxygen in the river, causing imbalance and much of the ecosystem to die. This can flow to coastal regions, further impacting fragile ecosystems. In the UK, you can sometimes see the accumulation of sea foam on our beaches, which can be caused by similar nutrient overload from farms and urban drain run off. These events are becoming more common, with one study identifying growth in affected estuaries in the US from 37% in the 1980’s to 64% in the 2000s.

So how bad is coffee when it comes to eutrophication?

A 2018 study, led by Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek, identified a kg of coffee to typically cause 110g of eutrophying emissions. That’s more than chicken, pork and cheese and represents the biggest non-animal source offender of eutrophication, shown in the chart below). While we don’t typically consume coffee to the same weight as meat and dairy, it remains one of the greatest contributors to the global eutrophication issue.

So what can we do?

With a large range of coffee processing techniques available, here are some things to look for on product websites or on pack:

  • Seek out sources of shade-grown coffee which is less intensive and more in harmony with the natural environment. The tree canopy protects the coffee plants from infrequent rains, which limit the need for irrigation, and reduce nutrient runoff.
  • Avoid monoculture productions where known, as these tend to overuse fertilizers, which is known to cause eutrophication.
  • Seek out natural, sun dried processing which is estimated to use 75 times less water than traditional wet mills.
  • Look for brands that provide transparency on their social and environmental policies, or carry certifications of Rainforest Alliance, Triple AAA, Organic, or Fairtrade.

The challenge with guidelines such as these, is that often these can contradict each other in individual cases. And it’s not always clear on the packaging….It’s confusing, we know! What is needed is clear guidance to compare product to product, so you can easily understand the benefits of each product and make an informed decision.

Fortunately, this is exactly what Greener Beans is setting out to do. And the good news is coffee will be one of the categories we offer in the first wave of our free sustainable SWAP service. Watch this space for launch in early 2021.  Better yet, sign up to our newsletter below so you can be one of the first to get the benefit.


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