Espresso or drip coffee? Medium or dark roast? Support coffee farm workers or save the rainforests? More than 2 billion people around world consume coffee regularly (1). How many of them think about where their coffee beans are grown and about the social and environmental effects of their coffee choices?
What was once considered a luxury in the fifteenth century, coffee has become mainstream, even a necessity, for many people today. Coffee is the second most valuable traded good in the world, behind petroleum; the United States alone imports more than 2.5 billion pounds of coffee each year. Most of the coffee consumed today comes from South America (Brazil is the world’s largest producer and exporter), Central America and Southeast Asia (2).
There are two main species of coffee beans (arabica and robusta) which differ not only in aroma, caffeine content and taste, but production methods as well. Robusta coffee tends to be planted in monocrop stands and grown “full-sun” in hotter and wetter climates. Arabica coffee, on the other hand, is often “shade-grown,” planted next to taller trees and usually as part of a larger, polyculture production system (2). Both practices have significant impacts on the surrounding environment.
Coffee production, particularly full-sun growing practices, is strongly correlated with deforestation. From 1990 to 1995, of the fifty countries with the highest rates of deforestation, thirty-seven of them were coffee producers (3). Natural forest areas are continuously being cleared to make room for coffee plantations which destroys the surrounding ecosystems in addition to habitats for many tropical birds. Although full-sun coffee causes the greatest amount of damage, the thinning of forests for shade-grown coffee also decreases biodiversity.
In the 1970s and 80s, much coffee production was shifted from shade-grown to full-sun in order to maximize production and crop yield (4). However, this often involved monocropping and also required increased use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Over time, these industrial growing practices ultimately resulted in significant soil erosion. Due to the lack of surrounding biodiversity, much of the land once used for coffee cultivation has been abandoned due to the poor soil quality (2).
Coffee processing used to take place at the plantation and the remaining coffee pulp was used as mulch in the field. However, as coffee plantations were abandoned and started in new areas with fresh soil, coffee processing now occurs further away from the field.. Rather than using the remaining coffee pulp as mulch, it is frequently discarded in nearby rivers, polluting nearby waterways. The pollution is not a result of toxicity from the coffee pulp, but rather the oxygen required for its decomposition. As a result, many marine species cannot survive in water with such low oxygen levels (2).
Not only does coffee production affect the environment, the complex coffee industry has significant social implications as well. The demand and production cycles of coffee greatly affect coffee farmers’ livelihoods. For example, responding to an increasing demand for coffee worldwide, farmers rapidly planted more trees and soon overproduced, resulting in a decrease in coffee prices to producers overall. In some countries, producers abandoned their coffee plantations or even destroyed them (2).
In addition, the coffee commodity chain is quite extensive as it involves growers, processors, exporters, distributors, roasters, packagers, retailers and customers. Given the numerous steps involved with getting coffee beans from farmer to consumer, the money distribution throughout the supply chain can vary. In 2002, coffee farmers and laborers were receiving a much smaller percentage (7%) of the retail revenue compared to the roasters (29%) and retailers (22%) (1).
Several organizations have brought attention to this revenue distribution issue and are trying to develop and implement programs to help coffee farmers receive a greater percentage of the retail revenue. To read more about what each group is doing, see our Further Resources list.
Consumers today are faced with a myriad of coffee labels - Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, Organic, Shade Grown. Click here to find out what it all means.
1. The Financial Times. Growers Left Tasting Dregs of Coffee: Farmers’ Share of Income from Sales of More Brands is Falling. London, England; May 23, 2002.
2. Clay, Jason. World Agriculture and the Environment. World Wildlife Fund. Washington D.C., 2001.
3. Manion M, et al. The Scale and Trends of Coffee Production Impacts on Global Biodiversity. Paper prepared by Industrial Economics, Inc. for the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, Conservation International, Washington, D.C. October 15, 1999. Draft.
4. Global Exchange. Accessed March 15, 2007.