From production to consumption: what is the environmental impact of coffee

One of the most suggestive symbols of our country and an inevitable break in our days. What are we talking about? But coffee of course. In Italy, enjoying a coffee is an indispensable ritual, encompassing the taste sphere and the emotional sphere of those who consume it. Preparing suede in the morning, skimming the milk into a homemade cappuccino, are all actions that at least 90% of the population do every day.

But it is not just us consumers who depend on the coffee cup every day. Globally, about 125 million people depend on the coffee industry to find jobs. However, due to the growing threat from climate change, it has become increasingly difficult to meet the demand for cereal cultivation and to find employment in this area.

So it is natural to ask ourselves: how sustainable is coffee? And how can we as consumers make our coffee break truly sustainable and organic?

How durable is coffee during production

Coffee is one of the most traded raw materials in the world, second only to oil. In fact, it is estimated that about 2.5 billion cups of coffee are consumed every day. Although most of the production takes place in developing countries such as South America, the largest consumption takes place in the so-called developed countries.

Market demand is growing every year and it is estimated that by 2050, demand for coffee will even triple. This often leads to cultivation followed by uncontrolled deforestation to make room for the land that can be cultivated, with the attendant irreparable environmental and social damage. In addition, in the seventies there was a transition from cultivation in the shade to cultivation in the sun, which made things more complicated.

In the past, the coffee plant was grown protected by the leaves of the trees and this led to many benefits from an environmental point of view. The trees thus became the perfect habitat for birds, or the natural predators of certain insects that were responsible for damaging crops. Without these predators, the use of pesticides is necessary to eradicate them. Growing in the shade also helped prevent water from spreading into the soil.

Cultivation in the sun, although more productive in the short term, depletes the soil in the long term, requiring greater water consumption (it is estimated that at least 110 liters of water per day is needed to produce a cup of coffee), as well as constant intensive use than pesticides to eliminate pests that destroy the crop.

Returning to shadow cultivation methods by repopulating forests can be the first step towards more sustainable production in the long run. This would also avoid the financial consequences for producers and consequently for the final consumer. It must be remembered that, as with gold and oil, the price of coffee is determined by the stock market and it is not always right to cover production costs, which inevitably leads to the producing companies exploiting workers.

Consumption and sustainability: how to choose the right coffee and avoid environmental impact

To avoid environmental impact and be aware of drinking a sustainable cup of coffee, the consumer can do several things. First and foremost, choose to buy coffee with organic Fair Trade certifications, that is, fair-trade coffee that supports sustainable crops and helps improve farmers’ lives.

Preferring the purchase of coffee from small businesses also enables more direct contact with those who choose coffee and thus greater control over the supply chain. Local brands often rely on small producers who work with respect for the land and the workers. And for cappuccino lovers who prefer to skim milk at home, why not choose herbal milk to further reduce the environmental impact of the cup of coffee?

Another sustainable choice is that which is linked to actual consumption. Avoiding plastic capsules, preferring the use of ground coffee or compostable tubs helps the environment a lot. It is also preferable to choose reusable cups and cups for drinking coffee, rather than disposable products. In this context, we hope that EU Directive 2019/904 on SUP (Single Use Plastic), which entered into force in January 2022, will help reduce the production and use of disposable plastic, which is harmful to our planet.

Finally, a rule that applies to the consumption of all other products: less is more. Or drink less, but better. Coffee has a big impact on the planet, so it’s good that we learn to give it the right value and enjoy it only when it’s really worth it.

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