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  • Jayanti Srivastava

Decrypting Your Caffeine Addiction: Does it have an impact on the environment?

Author: Arav Shah

Editor: Jayanti Srivastava


It’s a cold, windy day outside and you’re trying to open your eyes to switch off that incessant ringing your alarm is emanating. It’s been a tiring day yesterday, and its promising to be a dreadful day ahead. Work barely got done (school, college, or office; take your pick) despite you having stayed up half the night and now it’s already 0800, making it time to go. Your blanket seems to be the most inviting thing since Eve invited Adam to take just a teeny, tiny bite of the fruit and similarly, you’re talking yourself into another five minutes of “resting your eyes so you’ll be refreshed”. We all know how that goes. Conversely, let’s cut to another all too familiar situation. Its Monday morning and you wake up with a splitting headache, an aching body, and an overwhelmingly strong call of the wild. Instant regret for the bender of a weekend that seems all too scandalous in the light of day (it might still be dark out) and a few too many unsavoury words for that one friend who made you down those last few shots (there’s always that one who really pushes you over the edge). The only similarity (apart from the overwhelming feeling for requesting a vacation from life) between the two is the alarmingly large amount of coffee in that big (grande, if that pokes your fancy) cup on the platform.

What most people seem to be unaware of is that the daily dose of coffee that enables most of us to go through the day (and very possibly; the week) and not want to drown out all surrounding noise has a considerable detrimental hit on the planet.

The trade value in 2019 for the coffee industry was a total of 30.9 billion dollars with Brazil as the top exporter, and the USA the top importer. Furthermore, around 125 million people around the world depend on it for their livelihood. Considering the specialized climate along with the agricultural conditions required for production, the majority of the cultivation is undertaken by small scale farmers. On the face of it, the industry seems to create an entire job market for farmers in developing South American, African, and South-east Asian nations. It also contributes a considerable chunk to the world’s Gross Domestic Product (‘GDP’). The problem arises when accounting for the very steeply increasing demand for coffee with the means of supply remaining at the same sphere. Despite being the farthest thing from an economist or market analyst, basic supply & demand curve theory predicts an overload or an inability to keep up with the increased demand without the possibility of negative externalities. Coffee growth requires delicately balanced complex ecosystems operating on the basis of a plethora of factors such as flora and fauna activity to yield the best results.

Additionally, estimates report a million tons of organic pulp waste and 110,000 cubic metres of water a day required for sustained production in Central America.

The carbon cost and emissions generated from production is an important metric when accounting for Green House Gas (‘GHG’) emission. In a study conducted by two UCL fellows, the results revealed that a single cup of espresso has a footprint of approx. 0.28 kg. To put this into context, the UK is estimated to consume close to 98 million cups a day, and the world estimate sitting somewhere close to two billion cups a day. A little bit of quick maths makes it obvious the carbon footprint is far from okay. The scarier part is that this is simply one of the fallouts of the final product that is available. At its primary stages during farming, coffee cultivation activities have been directly responsible for almost 2.5 million acres of deforestation in Central America. Since the 1970’s, increased fertilizer growth and canopy destruction have been incrementally rising towards disturbing levels, contributing towards a decreased rate of natural flora replenishment. The elimination of the shade and canopies affects the soil quality parameters and discourages avian conservation in the leafy environment, making the land more susceptible to erosion, while simultaneously reusing the land before it has been allowed to balance out the required nutrients in the soil. This leads to production of poorer quality grains, and higher prices in the future. The process of separating the beans from the coffee cherries generates enormous volumes of waste material as well, in the form of pulp, residual matter, and parchment. The easiest solution for the farmers alongside the producers is to dump acidic affluent composing of organic matter in the surrounding rivers.

Based on these facts, the first question that comes to mind is, “Why doesn’t the world have a problem with this?”. In a digital age where it takes a second to determine which celebrity recently got a facelift or which gorilla tried to “devour” a baby (R.I.P. Harambe), why isnt there a movement, posters, campaigns, and slogans to fix this? The reasoning is quite simple; most of us have no idea that this problem exists. This goes all the way down to the grassroots level where most farmers have zero idea as to what price their product retails at, where the bean they grow is shipped off to, and which corporation eventually profits off it. Fairtrade statistics indicate the average farmer earns around two dollars/kg of coffee bean. Anyone who drinks coffee or has ever even accidentally walked into a Starb***s knows that the smallest size of the cheapest coffee available sets you back twice of what a kilo seems to be sold off for. Of course, certain considerations need to be made; shipping, roasting, export prices, tariffs, and import costs, etc. But, the sheer bottom shelf prices being paid began the Fairtrade institution. Setting a Fairtrade Minimum price for farmers, it supports reinvestment and cooperative restructuring for them increasing their negotiating power while simultaneously setting the conditions to help standardize minimum prices across all transactions. However, the promotion and marketing aimed at veering consumers towards Fairtrade coffee seems to be quite dismal. If not for the creatively genius minds of Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman, I might never have stumbled upon the Laughing Man coffee foundation. Set up by the quintessential Aussie of the early 2000’s and based in New York, Laughing Man acts as an intermediary and investment block for various programs focussed on Ethiopia, Colombia and Peru. Inspired by the potential to create a coffee bean with close to zero carbon footprint (a single kilo of Arabica and its export amounts to 15.33kg of CO2). Accounting for the inherent volatility and economic fluctuation within the industry, Fairtrade coffee (Laughing Man included) initiatives dictate that alongside the minimum price cap set down, the farmers are also able to trace the journey of the crop and its final destination. However, a point of interest to note is that neither is the environmental impact a concern nor is it a docket on the Fairtrade agenda which has led to certified farmers facing pressure to register with parallel organizations like the Rainforest Alliance. They are further incentivized to do so by assurance that their investment and participation shall yield a selling point while creating a niche for their product.

Notwithstanding other impacts such as the plastic cups generated, coffee filter accumulation in organic waste, and the not so ethical tactics used by big brand coffee shops to ensure cheap product, the continued rate of consumption of coffee on the current production tangent does not point towards a very promising future. On the current analytical estimate, coffee is set to be a luxury item in the same class as champagne by 2050 and while I personally think a cup of coffee just wouldn’t be the same on New Year’s Eve, the larger economic, environmental and sociological externalities associated with this categorization could contribute heavily to an already decaying world.

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