Renewable Thinking

Coffee and the Environment 1: The World Loves the Stuff
by Alex Osteen -- January 10th, 2013

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I like coffee.  In fact, I may go as far as to say that I love coffee. Considering that I am in the Environmental School at Duke, I have decided I will write a series of posts on how coffee relates with the environment.

It seems almost ridiculous when I say it, but this bitter, black drink has played an integral part in my life. I am first a consumer. I drink coffee when I wake up in the mornings, in the lull after lunch, after big dinners and even sometimes late at night depending on how close I am to finishing work. Its pervasive, enticing smell leaves me hopelessly wanting. I’m an addict, no question. My addiction to caffeine at one point bothered me and I gave it up for five years. I had legitimate withdrawal at first, with mean headaches. Then, in undergrad (literally overnight) I gave in to its allure once more during a late night of studying.

I know that I’m not alone in my addiction, however. Caffeine, the physically addictive part of coffee, is a drug that is mild yet satisfying enough to be accepted by most cultures around the world, with few exceptions (Mormons come to mind). Studies about health effects related to coffee consumption seem to be ambiguous at best. Some say coffee helps keep the heart healthy or stimulates the mind , while others say it hurts the nervous system and leads to high blood pressure . I suspect that, as with anything, it’s best when consumed in moderation.

Tania Mendoza picks coffee on her dad’s farm in El Dorado, Honduras. Photo by Alicia Ward, PCV.

Regardless of the pros or cons of consumption, coffee is popularly claimed to be the second most traded good in the world after petroleum, though this statistic may be a bit suspect. Last year, 37 million pounds of it were distributed worldwide. It’s also been a human tradition for a long time; I just read that J.S. Bach wrote a cantata about a woman who was addicted to coffee in the year 1732. Check out the YouTube video here.

Suffice it to say that lots and lots of people drink coffee and, necessarily, lots of people grow it. Yet the average coffee drinker, someone who gets a $1 cup of joe from McDonald’s or the corner gas station every morning, doesn’t often think about where it comes from or, much less, the intricate effects coffee has on the surrounding land and people. We Americans do tend to be happy-go-lucky consumers.

I admit that I was the same until I became a Peace Corps volunteer and lived amongst coffee farmers for two years. I can confidently say that, from all I witnessed, this habit of ours does play a surprisingly large role in the environment and economy in many developing countries. Of the topics I will discuss in subsequent posts are organic vs conventional agriculture and certifications, deforestation and erosion, water and health, fair and unfair trade, and food security.

2 Comments

  1. John Sacharok
    Jan 15, 2013

    Alex,
    I share your passion for coffee. I have spent most of my 40+ business years searching for the best cup of coffee. I can assure you that there still are a few jewels out there but mass production has caused a significantly high level of taste mediocrity. I have recently devoted my efforts in remediating lands and reforesting plantations. I would enjoy discussing this and other coffee topics with you. FYI, 2010 world production of coffee was about 120,000,000
    bags of 70 kilo coffee.

    • Alex Osteen
      Alex Osteen
      Jan 21, 2013

      John,
      Thanks for replying! I’m glad to hear that there are more people out there who are conscientious about the topic. Lots of coffee drinkers are mainly oblivious. I’m impressed that you’ve gotten involved in reforestation- best of luck with that.
      Also, thanks for the correction on my numbers. I got my statistic from USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service (FAS) and it is possible that I made an conversion error along the way. I hope you’ll read my future posts and post your thoughts and perspective- it’ll be interesting to see if we agree on some of these topics. Feel free to email me!

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