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Insight: The Hidden Cost of Coffee

Updated: Dec 19, 2020

Ziryan Aziz looks into the environmental impact our coffee addiction has on Earth's rainforests.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao

Next to water, coffee is the world’s second most-consumed drink, with hundreds of billions of cups being drunk every year. It’s no surprise then to hear that with the world's population increasing, the consumption of coffee has also been steadily growing, with a new demand to produce even greater quantities of the bean.

But with this ever-growing demand, the environmental impact of coffee production on the rainforests in which the beans are commonly grown is having momentous effects that will likely continue to worsen.

Cutting down forests for caffeine

Agriculture is the leading factor in global deforestation, accounting for 80% of tree loss in the world’s rainforests. From the start of the 1990s to 2016, the World Bank estimates that the Earth lost an area of forest larger than the whole of South Africa.

What makes deforestation even more of a threat is the impact rainforests have in fighting climate change, given that forests act as huge carbon sinks absorbing 40% of the world's manmade carbon dioxide annually, not to mention being home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity.

But where does coffee fit into this? Well, for every cup of coffee produced it is estimated that one square inch of rainforest was destroyed. The reason for this is to do with the types of coffee grown – there are two types of coffee plant, those that grow under direct sunlight and those that grow under shade. The kind that grows in the open can produce a yield three times as great as its counterpart, making it easy to understand why it’s a favourite amongst coffee farmers.

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Coffee beans start off as cherry plants, requiring specific environmental conditions to grow. Humid, high altitude areas along the equator are perfect for coffee growers to produce those beans we all love. These conditions require trees to be cleared for the plantations, thus depleting the nutrients in the soil and altering the temperature and moisture of the land, as well as having permanent effects on the biodiversity which relies on the rainforest’s delicate ecosystem.

The process of producing the beans from the plants is also environmentally damaging. Removing the bean from the cherry fruit requires a process of large-scale fermentation of the fruit to remove the outer layers. This excess waste product, as well as pesticides used, is then disposed of in local rivers and streams, killing aquatic life as it breaks down, depleting oxygen in the water.

Economics vs Environment

In 2019, the Sustainable Coffee Expo held in the US outlined a number of issues the coffee sector was facing. Along with correct certification, the need to have better legislation regulating how coffee farming can be done with the environment in mind was top of the agenda.

Although a coffee-producing country may have laws surrounding the protection of its forests, enforcement of them may be weak, and breaking them may even be tolerated if exploiting the forests’ resources is lucrative. These economic incentives continue to drive rainforest clearances, as the financial opportunities available to poor locals eclipse the moral principle of leaving the land untouched, especially as our appetite for the beans is ever-increasing.

Due to the particular growing conditions coffee plants require, a rapidly warming climate is having consequences on our ability to produce coffee in keeping with demand. The land that can support coffee production is diminishing at an alarming rate. A study has projected that by 2050, coffee-growing regions such as Central America could see reductions in suitable crop land from 89% to just 38%, and some countries like Brazil could be unable to grow coffee all together.

With coffee consumption slowly emerging at the forefront of the issue global deforestation, perhaps we ought to consider the challenges involved in growing those beans which some of us require to just to start the day, and the challenges involved in acquiring them.

You may also like: The Indigenous Use Tech Innovation to Fight Amazon Deforestation

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