Say It Ain’t So, Joe…


The good news is that a cup of hot coffee helps hundreds of millions of people wake up every morning. The bad news . . .

Yes, because this is a column about sustainability, where many a desire or tradition comes to die, there is something to be said against coffee. Sorry about that.

Coffea plants, which are classified as both shrubs and small trees, are native to high-altitude, tropical and subtropical regions. They flourish, in a natural way, under a canopy of larger trees. When they are part of an ecological system, not in the lead role but as a character actor, they contribute to the health of other plants and help furnish the kind of environment in which animals can flourish, as well.

However, the tremendous thirst for coffee—more than 1 billion earthlings imbibe, if you can wrap your get-them-warmed-up hands around that—prompts many coffee growers to maximize their output, environment be damned. Forests are cut down and coffea plants are grown in rows, under full sun. As Salon put it a few years ago in an article titled “Our Coffee Addiction is Destroying the Environment”:

“Think of human factory workers, who thrive with reasonable amounts of fresh air and sunlight-derived vitamin D, but are rather packed into windowless fulfillment centers for optimal profit and efficiency. Plants and people aren’t the same, but the logic is.”

According to “The Environmental Impact of Coffee Production: What’s Your Coffee Costing the Planet?” on the Sustainable Business Toolkit website, more than 2.5 million acres of forest have been razed to make room for coffea plants. And that’s just in Latin America.

“Remarkable biodiversity values are at stake,” Victoria Moore writes in the story. “Latin America’s tropical forests are critical ecologically for protecting atmospheric dynamics, water quality, and wildlife species.”

More coffee beans are produced per acre on such farms, but chemicals used to increase output have a devastating effect, as does the process of removing the beans from the coffee “cherries,” and the roasting, packaging and distribution of the addictive product.

“Ecological impacts result from the discharge of organic pollutants from the processing plants to rivers and waterways, triggering eutrophication of water systems and robbing aquatic plants and wildlife of essential oxygen,” Moore adds. (Eutrophication means waterways become so dense with nutrients that dense plant life grows and less oxygen is available for fish and other animal life.)

Is tea any more sustainable? It appears so, as at least one report claims that coffee’s carbon imprint is five to seven times worse than its small-bagged rival. But for those of us who prefer the taste of coffee to tea, is that enough reason to make the switch? You go first.

How can you feel better about retaining your coffee habit (assuming you’ve now given it more critical thought, thanks to this downbeat sustainability column)? You can buy shade-grown (in a natural setting or one created for the purpose), fair-trade (locals hired, livable wages paid) and organic. Find such options at most local grocery stores and at some coffeehouses, including Pachamama Coffee Bar (3644 J St. and 919 20th St.) and Coffee Works (3418 Folsom Blvd.) in East Sacramento.

If you do buy coffee on the run, consider using a refillable metallic container. Every little gesture toward “green coffee” helps.