Wake Up and Smell The Sustainability

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Coffee has a rich history rooted in cultures around the world. International Coffee Day, Saturday, September 29th, celebrates coffee and its history, but we should also be thinking about its sustainability. The United States is the biggest consumer of coffee, which is the largest tradeable commodity in the world after oil. Globally, we drink more than 600 billion cups of coffee every year.

Coffee growing has a large environmental impact. Coffee has been reported to have a water footprint of 140 liters per cup. This measure includes all of the water required to bring the product to market.  Many growers adopted the sun grown method of growing coffee in the late 1970’s to expedite the growing process. This led to extreme deforestation and biodiversity loss. Shade grown coffee is a much more sustainable growing method. It requires little or no chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides.

Coffee companies and researchers have recognized the problem and are making changes. Counter Culture Coffee and Think Coffee are two examples of businesses that have embraced sustainability. Counter Culture Coffee makes detailed contracts with each of their partners that sets specific goals for quality and sustainability. Think Coffee believes that sustainability starts with people. They have invested in housing reconstruction in Colombia, feminine hygiene in Ethiopia, or clean water access in Nicaragua.  

ISTC has also been involved in sustainability surrounding coffee in the past. Researchers at ISTC have studied the use of spent coffee grounds. In their study, they produced biodiesel, bio-oil, and biochar from the spent grounds. They were then able to extract lipids from spent grounds and convert the material to biodiesel. Sustainably managing the waste that coffee produces is a great way to minimize the environmental impact.

Climate change is also becoming an increasing threat to coffee production because coffee is grown in very specific conditions. Climate change is causing the once ideal temperature and precipitation levels in the tropics to fluctuate dramatically. It is also causing drought, which has led to an increase in the range of diseases that kill insects that pollinate coffee plants. Drought can also lead to soil degradation that can make the once fertile land unproductive.

Coffee, like many things we consume every day, has impacts beyond what we see on the surface. Remember the environmental impact each cup has the next time you take a sip. Consider decreasing your consumption or switching to tea, which requires about eight times less water than coffee.