How an Obsession with Coffee is Destroying our Rainforests

By Shulamit Brunswick
On February 13, 2012

It is difficult to believe that a bitter, black drink has spawned a nearly worldwide obsession. Coffee has quickly evolved from its humble origins to a multi-faceted drink consumed by the gallon by rich and poor. In the US especially, gone are the days where one could order a simple cup of coffee; instead consumers spout off long, rattling titles at their local Starbucks counter which all wind up to mean the same thing: "Coffee! Stat!" However, coffee's status as one of the most consumed beverages in the world masks the very real truth that our beloved drink is the number one cause of rainforest destruction.

Legend has it that an Ethiopian goatherd discovered coffee when he noticed his goats frolicking around a bush with mysterious red berries which, when the goatherd tasted them himself, produced a feeling of euphoria. A monk, witnessing the goatherd, took some berries back to his monastery and that night, the monks were more alert to divine inspiration. Coffee soon crossed the sea into Arabia and the beverage as we know it today was born. In 1615, coffee was introduced to Europe and the race to grow and produce it was on, with the Dutch coming out ahead and growing a booming coffee business. Soon it crossed the Atlantic and by 1800, Brazil was the leading coffee producer in the West.

Today, with 500 billion cups consumed every year, coffee is a monster industry, boasting revenues exceeding $10 billion. Brazil and Columbia lead the pack, producing 22.5 and 10.5 million 60 kg bags, respectively.

 However, coffee's booming industry comes with a hefty price tag. Each single cup of this brown gold destroys three-square centimeters of rainforest. This staggering estimate makes coffee the leading cause of rainforest destruction. More and more rainforests are cleared to create the "sun drenched" environment coffee growers demand. Much of this destruction is in vain as more coffee is produced than is consumed.

Since coffee production is so valuable, the plants are heavily sprayed with pesticides. Many of these pesticides are not only poisonous to the wildlife and the farmers, but contaminate the water as well. Natural means of soil regeneration have been abandoned as the growers push the land to its limit. The results are reduced productivity over time, and soil erosion and acidification. The soil erosion rate around coffee plants is nearly double the rate of subsidence plots, the land a farmer will cultivate for his own needs, because there are broad expanses of bare soil under the coffee bushes which are vulnerable during the rainy season.

Finally, the emergence of coffee monopolies created an unfair distribution of wealth among the supply chain. From the berries to the finished product, coffee changes hands at least fifteen times before it reaches the roaster and the price increases at each step. The farmer may earn $0.15/lb., which the roaster and retailer will earn $5.00/lb. to $20.00/lb. Small farmers cannot compete with large plantations and many small farmers live at subsidence level despite producing high quality coffee.

Despite the damage it causes, it seems unlikely that coffee production will slow; it is just too lucrative. Uganda exports just 3 million 60kg bags and they account for 75% of the country's export revenue and provide employment for 80% of all rural workers. Uganda is not the only country to benefit economically from coffee. 100,000 small farms generate most Mexican coffee and coffee's economic importance in Columbia has lead to all cars entering the country to be sprayed for harmful bacteria.

It is clear that the solution will not come from the growers and so, it must come from the consumers. If people were made to realize that cutting down on their coffee intake would positively affect our disappearing rainforests, the demand for the "brown gold" would diminish, leading to decreased production and, more importantly, greatly decreased rainforest destruction.

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