Finding a Sustainable Cup of Coffee

Australians consume about 16.3 million cups of coffee per day – but while this morning ritual offers plenty of health benefits and cultural significance, it comes at a price. Grown in some of the planet’s most biologically diverse regions, coffee farms can dramatically impact the environment.

Tropical forests are often cleared to allow these farms to develop, but there are some cultivation practices producers can use to support impressive forest biodiversity. Since coffee plants require shade for growth, coffee is often cultivated beneath shading plants – which supports a diverse variety of plant life.

“The world’s most popular coffee type, Coffea arabica, grows under the rainforest canopies of Ethiopia,” said Aaron Gove, adjunct lecturer in environment and agriculture at Curtin University. “However, to improve productivity, traditional coffee farms have been increasingly replaced with sun-tolerant coffee varieties that produce higher yields.”

According to Gove, these “simplified plantations” support fewer native species, store less carbon, increase the threat of erosion, and leach more nutrients from the soil – requiring greater amounts of both water and fertilizers.

Often, people will look at how coffee is consumed to determine how environmentally-friendly the coffee is – instant, fresh grounds, or pods – but this provides less influence than the way the coffee is cultivated.

“The choice of coffee has a much stronger effect on the environmental friendliness than the capsule system, type of machine, or method of preparation,” said a report by Roland Hischier, an ecobalance expert with Empa researchers. “A well-informed choice of coffee is, in any case, the best option for the environment.”

Coffee grown on large farms with more mechanisation, fertilizer, and pesticides will cause a greater impact on the environment than plants grown traditionally, under the shade of a forest canopy. The machinery, methods, and chemicals used by a coffee plantation can contribute as little as one percent or as much as 70 percent of the total environmental footprint from a single cup of coffee.

“A combination of traditional cultivation methods, maintaining shading plants, protecting local forests and buffering waterways (filtering farmland runoff with vegetation before it enters waterways), has the lowest environmental impact,” added Gove.

There are some sustainability certification logos you can look for to gain a better understanding of where your coffee comes from, but a better idea is to talk to roasters either locally or through the internet to find out more about the practices of their coffee growers.

“Good questions to ask are whether the cooperative has any certification, whether the cultivation is organic or shade-grown, and whether the cooperative has any associated environmental programs,” said Gove.

Gove added that there are smaller landholders which do provide highly sustainable, shade-grown coffee – but who can’t afford the expense of pursuing certification for their products.

“Ultimately, a little knowledge of coffee cultivation and its impacts can go a long way in making wise and environmentally sound purchases,” Gove said. “There is a huge range of coffee choices available and good evidence that the choices you make can influence significant and positive environmental outcomes.”

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6 thoughts on “Finding a Sustainable Cup of Coffee

  1. What certifications should I be looking for?
    If I recall correctly, Coles 1kg beans are marked fair trade and organic for $12. I’m not buying that it’s a sustainable product at that cost.

    Are there certifications to be wary of?

  2. Access to market is a priority, and demand for a quality product is a close second.

    I am an Australian environmental scientist, permaculture nerd, coffee addict/coffee farmer living in rural Ecuador (Junin, Manabi Ecuador) and access to market and a decent price has a huge affect on the farms and community; it is the difference between earning $15-20 a quintal (100lb, standard sack) for coffee in cherry, as sold to the middlemen in any small town, and the equivalent of $100/qq if processed on-farm/community.

    At $20/qq it costs about half of that in labour for harvest, given a good worker can do 1.5-2qq/day @ $12/day. A well managed hectare can produce 150qq per year in cherry (which equates to around 30qq in dry weight). That is with irrigation, which is not free, half that production if rainfed. Being generous for the price, and ideal production; 150 x $10 = $1500/ha/year irrigated…. and the reality is that what could have been an amazing product gets turned into factory floor sweepings instant coffee.

    On the flip side with access to a market which appreciates good beans with a price incentive to be aware of quality at every pass… around here its possible to get a cupping score of 80+ with decent management, if not 90+ with excellent management (ie a polyculture permaculture forest rich in leguminous overstory and mulch/compost tea/biochar etc…).

    150qq/ha, processed on farm to 30qq/ha green bean with a cupping score 80+ can go for $350-500qq (up to $1000/qq for the great stuff I have heard); 30qq/ha x $350/qq = $10500/ha/year. Even if production is half that with rain only, it is still a much better deal than selling to the middlemen. One person can easily manage 2 hectares, the whole deal from harvest to green bean.

    The crazy part? Nearly no one processes on farm anymore, what used to be common practice has become a rarity… the good news is the Ecuadorian government has been investing in education and renovation of the key coffee growing areas. They supply the seeds, the planting bags, the technical advice, the support to community based processing – it started around 5 years ago and the areas first planted are now producing well… the price has been a sticking point, and this year the ag department is stepping in to buy at a fairer price to ensure farmers continue to plant. I would love to see organic management practices promoted, and even better sneaking in some permaculture principles, yet the only way to do that is by example.

    I’ve got a little 4 hectare old coffee farm – the plants I have are unproductive and need renovating; enter permaculture! Little by little I am clearing sections of old plants and putting in micro swales, broadforking, making/applying biochar/compost, and planting some shorter term crops. This year is hopefully dam building year and setting up a nursery for planting new coffee/polyculture… poco a poco, little by little. Pity I am broke, but that hasn’t stopped me yet!

    So at the end of the day: drink quality coffee! The extra few $ you pay for it really does affect the farmers.

    Oh and on another note, I am making biochar/slow sand water filters for households affected by the earthquake here last year, subsidizing the costs of the units via gofundme – if anyone feels like donating a few $ it’ll go straight into material costs, first system getting installed tomorrow….
    https://www.gofundme.com/clean-water-access-for-ecuador

  3. How about dandelion or chicory? They make a surprisingly good substitute. Both are regenerative at the very least, local, good pollinator plants, and, given the length of their tap roots, have access to minerals that many other herbaceous plants don’t.

  4. Living in Australia, my idea of sustainable coffee grows in north Queensland and gets delivered direct from the farm to my place

  5. “A combination of traditional cultivation methods, maintaining shading plants, protecting local forests and buffering waterways (filtering farmland runoff with vegetation before it enters waterways), has the lowest environmental impact,”

    Not necessarily – traditional coffee farming under shade, especially when organic, mostly has low yields. If all the coffee in the world reverted to that system, then more forest would be destroyed to make up the shortfall.

  6. That first picture is simply depressing. It’s like chickens in a factory farm. So many of them, with no natural environment to support and protect them.

    I gave up coffee for for a while, and then started taking it up again recently. But I have decafe (washed coffee) to reduce the addictive qualities, and I made the choice to not only have a smaller cup – no mug – but I also use half a teaspoon. I even halved the amounts of cups I was drinking in a day.

    In my mind, it’s about reducing the addictive qualities of coffee in your life, while sill enjoying the flavour of it. So then we don’t have to consume more than is necessary.

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