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.”