The first activity that many of us do in the morning when we wake up is probably head straight to the kitchen and start boiling a cup full of water for our morning pick-me-up. That smell and taste of a good cup of freshly-made coffee are both relaxing and energizing, isn’t it? If this is how your routine weekday mornings are, let me tell you a bit more about my research.
I work on global forest change, and on most days, it is a sobering job. The world loses significant amounts of forest every year, much more than it grows back. The rates of deforestation in so-called ‘deforestation hotspots’ (like the Amazon basin and in South-east Asia) show yearly fluctuations but remain alarmingly high. According to some estimates, several million hectares of forest have been lost each year over the last several years. These are forests which, if left undisturbed, would remain natural ecosystems and act as our support systems.
What’s driving these losses? Agricultural expansion to grow everyday commodities is responsible for more than a quarter of all forest loss globally. These commodities include soy, palm oil, cocoa—the basis for much of what we eat, drink and use every day. And of course, that morning cup of coffee sourced from far-flung lands.
Across the world, coffee is grown in a variety of ways—from exclusive coffee plantations to agroforestry systems. Each system of coffee production and management practices adopted, brings with itself corresponding environmental impacts, including deforestation and biodiversity loss.
As an individual situated far away from the source, it might make you think about one’s impact on the environment. For the (Ethiopian/Brazilian/Indonesian) coffee that we consume, there are disproportionate impacts on forests in these landscapes—we lose the forest cover and with it, the ecosystem services that these forests provide at local and global scales, from livelihood generation to climate change mitigation. Additionally, for the coffee grown on land where a forest once used to stand, getting it from farm to plate has been the result of a massive global endeavour involving a complex supply chain. The maintenance of that supply chain itself may have come at a cost to the environment.
While our choices and preferences have evolved, they have been made possible by the increasing complexity of global supply chains. In this background, what remains of our individual responsibilities and agency? Could we push for alternatives that don’t harm natural ecosystems?
With increasing economic incentives for growing commodities like coffee, driven by expanding demand across the world, production is unlikely to recede in the coming years. In this context, some Indian coffee enterprises have taken the lead in advancing and sustaining coffee-based agroforestry systems with a focus on societal and conservation co-benefits.
At the same time—as intensive commodity-based systems can have environmental and social impacts—responsible and sustainable practices can have important and far-reaching co-benefits, not only for consumers at large but also for local-scale producers and communities. This is true for not only coffee but also other commodities, where responsible and certified practices can lessen impacts on local ecosystems and communities.
The burgeoning trade in commodities is, in fact, driven by economic incentives and legislation. Economically, the opportunity costs of deforestation for other income-generating activities remains low (like in this case, coffee farming), meaning that the incentive for conservation also remains rather low. Ecological damages, including the lost environmental and climate benefits, are not taken into account.
Ideally, this is where governments should step in with strict legislation and effective enforcement. This is a two-way street–consumers share responsibility with governments and big business. For starters, next time you buy a can of coffee in the market or at the nearest café, do take time out time to know about its certification status. Is the coffee you’re drinking certified? If it has (or has not), what does it mean? What do these certifications guarantee to the consumer?
As consumers, we retain the power of asking some (rather uncomfortable) questions from large-scale coffee producers and sellers. Let’s own the agency we possess and make producers and governments take note!
Ultimately, one might just want to ask, “How much forest is in my coffee?”
Manan Bhan is pursuing his PhD at the Institute of Social Ecology, Universität für Bodenkultur (BOKU) in Vienna (Austria). He studies the impacts of land use change on natural ecosystems around the world.