Can coffee be produced sustainably? That’s a big question, and it doesn’t look like anybody knows the longterm answer. Industry experts and independent researchers both respond with "Yes, but…" But what? Will coffee be around in 50 years? What must happen to ensure a decent cup in the next century?
Coffee requires a titanic amount of resources to travel from farm to cup, and at least partially thanks to the beverage’s massive carbon footprint, climate change could make it impossible to drink in another few decades. As a global commodity, coffee is one of the most traded products in the world, and one of the biggest exports from many developing countries—all of which are subequatorial. The shortest trip that a coffee bean travels from farm to cup in the US is about 1,000 miles— from Chiapas, Mexico into Texas. But, more likely the beans trek significantly farther, and transportation is only one part of the complicated, expensive journey.
Check out Sailing Dog Sustainable Distribution's carbon coffee infographic, which demonstrates coffee’s massive carbon and water footprint.
According to this 2012 study from the Journal of Agricultural Science and Technology, "The total carbon footprint calculated for Costa Rican coffee across its full supply chain is 4.98 kg of CO2e per kilogram of green coffee." Estimates for the water footprint from one cup of coffee range from about 140 to 200 liters. But that’s just part of the story. For coffee to be sustainable, the process doesn’t just have to get greener—it’s probably too late for that. Instead, the industry must adjust to climate change.
Economic sustainability, meaning that it’s viable to make money off growing and selling coffee, also must be addressed. Because no farmer should grow coffee at a loss. That’s exactly what happened when the commodity price fell below the cost of production during the "Coffee Crisis" of 2001. Many forward thinking companies—from giants like Starbucks, Illy, and Peet’s to smaller specialty brands like Intelligentsia, Blue Bottle, and Stumptown—decided it would be smarter to pay more for coffee through direct trade relationships, grower cooperatives, and infrastructure at origin, to guarantee a high-quality, continuing supply of coffee.
But ethical trade practices mean nothing if climate change will make coffee effectively extinct by 2080 as this study by scientists from the UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens, and the Environment and Coffee Forest Forum suggests:
In an area analysis the most favourable outcome is a 38% reduction in suitable bioclimatic space, and the least favourable a c. 90% reduction, by 2080. Based on known occurrences and ecological tolerances of Arabica, bioclimatic unsuitability would place populations in peril, leading to severe stress and a high risk of extinction. This study establishes a fundamental baseline for assessing the consequences of climate change on wild populations of Arabica coffee.
A combination of changing climate, along with the increased susceptibility of coffee plants to coffee rust and other diseases or pests, ensures that big changes are imperative.
Dr. Stephen Gliessman specializes in Agroecology (the study of sustainable agriculture) at the University of California Santa Cruz's Department of Environmental Studies and in his opinion much of the coffee traded today isn’t sustainable. When asked if coffee could be sustainable produced, he answered, "Yes, but only if coffee systems are redesigned to include multi-purpose plant species."
His redesigned coffee agriculture model begins, "first and foremost with shade trees that moderate the climate inside the coffee plantation, but secondarily produce other products that can be used or sold by the farmers. This would include food and fruit trees such as bananas, avocados, mangos, zapote, annona, nut trees, and many others."
These other species provide a myriad of benefits. Gliessman points out that they could also be used for firewood, construction material, or "even medicinal use."
Those secondary products of this agriculture model aren’t the point: "Most importantly, this ‘coffee forest’ also produces vast amounts of biomass that enriches the soil below the shade cover, reducing the need for outside inputs of fertilizer while storing carbon in the living biomass as well as in the soil. Such complete cover also captures and holds water, avoids erosion, and sequesters carbon." Erosion, water runoff, and inadequate soil are all issues that industrial farming exacerbates.
"Finally, many of the species might even be local native species of trees, birds, orchids, etc. that would otherwise be endangered due to deforestation of the natural forests," Gliessman adds. "In other words, ‘coffee forests’ produce much more than coffee, and farmers should be rewarded for this service to the environment and to humanity."
Gliessman argues that these resilient coffee forests will be able to survive climate change. "It is the low elevation robusta variety of coffee and the coffee that is grown in large monoculture, full sun plantations (the bulk of the coffee traded on the open commodity market) that will not be resilient." Single species plantations are more susceptible to disease and pests linked to climate change from lack of genetic diversity, and rising temperatures will make it impossible to grow even low-quality robusta at lower elevations.
"Some people say coffee will have to move up in elevation to cooler areas, but those areas are where some of the only remaining forest exists. In my opinion, with climate change, there will be added incentive for farmers to diversify their coffee plantings ... so that coffee once again functions as the shade loving, interior forest shrub species it originated as in the mountains of Ethiopia."
In 2012 Gliessman helped launch a non-profit called the Community Agroecology Network that promotes this model and helps farmers adopt it. For coffee companies which pay their farmers more than Fair Trade prices, grow beans in environmentally sustainably ways, and offer overall transparency in the process and more, the organization offers an AgroEco® certification. Sort like a Fair Trade stamp but better.
But, other companies are pursuing coffee farm diversity in slightly different ways. The World Coffee Research institute, a group that’s funded by titans of the coffee industry—Keurig, Mars, J.M. Smucker but also Counter Culture and Intelligentsia—is researching coffee varietals that could better survive in the bold, new, warmer world of the future. Much of this work is aimed at creating varieties of coffee plant that produce more, thrive at lower elevations, and are resistant to diseases like coffee rust.
It's possible that instead of sourcing coffee from Guatemala, you'll be doing it from Texas or the south of France.
In 2013, Tom Schilling, executive director of the World Coffee Research, told US News that by 2080 "It's possible that instead of sourcing coffee from Guatemala, you'll be doing it from Texas or the south of France."
Haley Drage, a spokesperson for Starbucks, says that the company has been working to address climate change for at least a decade. To facilitate research and development of agricultural techniques and new varietals of coffee, Starbucks owns a farm in Costa Rica that acts as the company's Global Agronomy Center. The aim is to grow coffee plants that are both better suited to surviving warmer weather and likewise resistant to climate change related diseases like coffee rust.
But, Starbucks' Global Agronomy Center isn’t just some corporate genetic R&D facility. Per Drage, "The research discoveries and best practices from this work will be available to anyone in an effort to inform growing principles for farmers around the world." This might seem like a generous and borderline unprofitable act for a big corporation, but that indicates just how dire the situation really is.
At the Cup
Agriculture is just one part of the coffee sustainability problem. Much of coffee’s carbon footprint comes not from farming and transportation but from the other end of the chain—the roasting, brewing, and drinking. In fact, consumption accounts for around 45 percent of the total carbon footprint of a cup of coffee according to the study "Carbon Footprint across the Coffee Supply Chain: The Case of Costa Rican Coffee" from the Journal of Agricultural Science and Technology.
In effort to reduce their carbon footprint, companies like Peet’s and Starbucks have LEED-certified facilities. In fact, Starbucks has more LEED certified retail stores than any other company in the world— over 500. A representative for Peet's explains that the chain recycles all pallets, burlap bags, and plastic packaging. Meanwhile, Starbucks claims to have reduced energy use in stores by 25 percent since 2013. And considering the behemouth's size, that’s a massive energy reduction. Further, Starbucks is also committing to purchasing only renewable energy.
As for smaller coffee roasters like Intelligenstia, Stephen Morrissey, Director of Communications and 2008 World Barista Champion, says that "As it relates to retail—we are currently building a program in Chicago that will recycle all of our milk containers. We are exploring the idea of partnering with a city farm to collect coffee grounds and we'll use a bike cart to travel around and collect it, before dropping it off."
It seems natural that there would be small cafes in the world dedicated to achieving zero carbon footprint, but they seem to be few and far between. The Perennial is a forthcoming carbon neutral restaurant, café, and bar in San Francisco conceived by Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz of Mission Chinese. The eatery will be an early adopter of a new certification called Zero Food Print launched by a non-profit of the same name, which founder Chris Ying (Lucky Peach) debuted at the 2014 MAD conference in Copenhagen. The Perennial has selected Paramo Coffee as the house brew, but owner Gabriel Boscana says the restaurant is still too far out from debuting to explain how his coffee with be carbon neutral.
But accord to Myint, to reach zero carbon footprint, "The Perennial will ... incorporate best practices and to a certain degree [go] a little outside the box to try and revise what best practices can mean. And ... will purchase food related carbon offsets to address the inevitable footprint thereafter." The Perennial raised money via Kickstarter last year for an aquaponic greenhouse in Oakland that will double as Paramo's roasting facility.
There’s no way around the fact that coffee is a resource-intensive product. Experts agree that if the world is going to continue drinking coffee 20 or 50 years from now, production methods will have to change. Whether we like it or not.