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April 10, 2016 | by  | in Features |
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Coffee casts no shade.

The grey dawn lifts and you can see the afflicted everywhere. The 5:15am train commuters, 6:00am traffic jammers, all members of the collective whole. We are the coffee-toting weekday warriors. We brave the wind, weapon in hand. The coffee cup: our must-have accessory. It is the common brand of the busy and the important. Made just way we like it, our coffee fits us—it is an extension of who we are.

The world coffee market has an annual retail value of over $70billion (NZD). Our morning fix is the second most traded commodity worldwide after oil. But, in a city of pop-up markets and beatnik eloquence, boutique coffee culture has failed translate into an environmentally friendly industry. How ethical is your weapon of choice? Consider what makes up an iconic classic: The Flat White.


The Coffee

From humble beginnings in Africa, coffee farming spread east and west along a latitudinal strip known as the Coffee Belt. According to National Geographic, the best yields require moderate sunshine, rain, porous soil, and steady temperatures. This tropical belt offers ideal conditions and is the reason the world’s coffee is produced in equatorial countries such as Guatemala, Mexico, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Northern Australia, and Indonesia. For the people of these countries, coffee is a means of earning a wage and provides economic stimulus as an exported and traded commodity. For consumers, coffee has two major realities—it is farmed by people, and produced by the land.

Abhorrent labour practices are the norm in rural communities where income and basic food supplies are scarce. In rural areas across the globe, women (compared to men) are disproportionately affected by poverty due to traditionally instilled roles as carers rather than financial earners. Human Rights Watch reports that in rural Peru, one of the highest coffee yielding countries in the world, 33.7% of women are illiterate compared with 10.9% of men, in part due to the remoteness of their homes and a lack of access to educational resources. When the sole family income earner is exploited, whether by forced labour or considerable underpayment, education is abandoned for basic survival. UN reports show that “a child born to a mother who can read is 50 per cent more likely to survive. Every year of education beyond grade four that a woman receives reduces the risk of her child dying by 10 per cent.” Sadly, many rural children who survive beyond infancy are forced into coffee plantation work rather than school to assist with the daily living costs of their families. World Vision defines child labour as “any kind of work that deprives a child of their childhood, their potential and their dignity.” Child labour practices run rampant in the coffee industry.

A child’s physical and mental development is affected when they are required to complete often dangerous and exhausting work, especially that which is necessary in plantation work: e.g. heavy lifting in extreme heat. Many children are at risk of poisoning due to unsafe exposure to pesticides, as well as disabling injuries. Other environmental hazards include fatalities due to snakebite. Child workers are not legally employed which means they lack even minimal employee protection. Their living conditions are often basic, with little or no running water.

When there is a lack of price stability for a commodity, such as coffee, there is no guaranteed return on labour for manufacturers or producers. To maximise profits, producers attempt to reduce expenses by reducing wages. Families have little choice but to work in exploitative or dangerous conditions to earn a basic income. Living conditions on exploitative plantations are dire. Migrant workers sleep in rows of bunks in derelict shelters. Often, the same water source will be used for cooking, drinking, and bathing. When consumers purchase a coffee that uses beans supplied by exploitative plantations or with no clear origin, your dollar encourages these practices. So how can you make an ethical choice on campus? Ask where your chosen café sources it’s beans. In Wellington, every coffee brand promotes its own roast varieties, blends, and origins. Self-proclaimed “coffee geeks with a big conscience,” People’s Coffee have been supplying coffee to Wellingtonians since 2004 and pride themselves on avoiding convoluted supply chains. This is achieved by cutting out the middle man and dealing directly with grower co-operatives. 25 million smallholder farmers produce 80 percent of the world’s coffee, and the forming of co-ops gives farmers the opportunity to be visible and to profit from this market share.

People’s philosophy is reinforced by their website’s manifesto. “By pooling their resources, growers [sic] can access the market with an export license, and through mutual profits, can buy and collectively own coffee infrastructure. As a coffee community, they can share a vision and have the means to develop it.” What does this mean in practice? Traceability. When a brand works directly with co-operatives they know exactly who grew their coffee, where it was grown and how much the growers were paid. People’s Coffee bear the Fairtrade Alliance Certification. When you buy from cafés who use Fairtrade Certified beans, you are making the best possible effort to ensure no human suffered for your purchase.

But what of the land? As consumers, we must also consider the environmental implications of coffee farming. Coffea is a genus of flowering plants, the seeds of which resemble red berries or cherries. These cherries are picked, shelled, and dried in the sun to be reduced to the beans that we import and roast for sale: as a whole product or grind for our preferred delivery system—espresso, plunger, or filter. The trees themselves grow to a height of approximately three metres, bear fruit after three to five years, and will continue to produce cherries for 50 to 60 years. Its flowers are highly perfumed. The cherries can take nine months to ripen. Traditionally, coffea was grown in the undergrowth of a forest canopy. Farmers would use sustainable agricultural techniques including composting their coffee pulp, rotating the crops, and avoided chemicals and fertilizers. They would cultivate other food sources. By intercropping with other plants such as nut trees and bananas they would provide food security for their families, as well as generating additional sources of income if necessary. Growing coffee in the understory beneath a diverse range of much taller trees ensured habitat protection for native wildlife. Farming had far less impact on local ecosystems. As consumer demand rose, modern farming methods were developed to increase and accelerate production. Vast deforestation enables mass production. Shade growing requires more effort. Workers handpicked berries in the undergrowth. Modern practices employ full-sun growing where harvesting can be managed with machinery and fewer migrant workers are necessary. Coffee production is now no different to monoculture crop farming in that it uses methods such as those employed to produce more controversial crops such as soy and corn. The ultimate issue with sun cultivation has little to do with taste and everything to do with profit maximisation through mass production. For example, coffee management has played (and continues to play) a critical role in the disturbance of forest in southwestern Ethiopia who produce with a share of 20-25% of the total foreign exchange earnings of coffee worldwide. The Smithsonian Institute has identified industrial coffee production as one of the major threats to songbirds in the Coffee Belt. In the Amazon, sloths are being relocated by locals to ensure the viability of the species in much the same way orangutan are being wiped out due to the farming of palm oil.

A successful Kiwi childhood is dependent upon the local river. Learning to swim, summers with friends, returning year after year to the water sources of our youth has benefits both nostalgic and cathartic. In South America, pulp waste is choking the river systems. The process of separating the beans from the coffee cherries generates enormous volumes of pulp waste that are mixed with residual water, parchment, and chemical contaminants. Fish and aquatic plants are denied oxygen and suffocate. Soil and water sources are severely degraded by chemical pesticides and herbicides. Workers on exploitative plantations drink contaminated water, and families’ dependant on the water source for cooking, drinking, and bathing are forced to ingest harmful poisons. Traditional shade coffee systems typically relied on much lower chemical inputs than industrial plantations because planting coffee among natural vegetation, or among trees planted for shade, fruit, or timber, can reduce susceptibility to pests.

So what should consumers be looking for? Use beans endorsed by the Rainforest Alliance. By promoting “shade-grown” certified coffee—coffee grown under a canopy of trees—your dollar is helping to prevent habitat loss, water contamination, and soil degradation.

But, Fair Trade? Or Rainforest Alliance? Which is the correct choice?

The Organic Consumer’s Association believe Fair Trade, Shade/Bird Friendly, and Organic labelling initiatives to be symbiotic, because what is good for the workers is good for our shared environment. There are coffee brands that are dually certified (both Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance), but a purchase of either is considered to be mutually beneficial and a better option than those brands that offer no protection to the people who farm the coffee or the land that yields it.


The Milk

Dairy cows and their by-products (manure) produce greenhouse gas (methane) and other carbon emissions which contribute to climate change. Much like the production of coffee, poor handling of waste, the use of fertilizers on dairy farms, and bacteria runoff can degrade local water sources and soil. Unsustainable dairy farming (including the production of cow feed-including grains and monocrops such as corn) reinforces degradation of ecologically important areas such as prairies and forests.

Soy drinkers are no less impactful. Soy is cultivated and produced with similar waste issues that continue well into the factory stages of production; non-recyclable cartons and factory carbon emissions.

Agricultural waste aside, consider the waste practices of your chosen café. How many milk bottles do they throw away? Lyttleton Café in Christchurch were sending 200–300 bottles away per week for recycling, but milk bottle lids are made of polypropylene. The melting level of the lids and the bottles are different because the chemical compounds of the plastics differ. The polypropylene has to be sorted out, washed, and then shaved into flakes separately. Typically the lids are simply separated out as contaminants at the recycling plant and head straight for landfill in favour of the more valuable compounds from the bottles.

Tired of such wastage, Lyttleton Café made headlines when they posted a sign informing customers that they do not serve trim milk. By making the change to reusable stainless steel vats of fresh milk sourced directly from a farmer in Oxford, they limited their stock to one kind of milk and cut waste markedly. Silo in Melbourne employs this system and goes a step further. As a zero waste café they process all food scraps through a waste dehydration machine. The compost it produces is given back to the farmers who supply their fruit and vegetables.

But what of your accessory?


The Cup

You only have to walk around Wellington CBD for five minutes to find a bin full of discarded paper coffee cups. The paper, while perhaps completely biodegradable is coated in a wax or plastic veneer to repel liquid; so, much like milk bottle lids and bottle labels, coffee cup pulp is separated from more valuable compounds and discarded.

What can you do? Bring your own cup. Bring your favourite mug from home. Buy a KeepCup—the best are BPA Free, glass, or ceramic. Carve yourself a wooden chalice. Your coffee cup is an extension of you. Make it unique. VicBooks incentivises the use of your own cup with discounts on every coffee. If you are buying paper cups you are charged extra, consider it a worthy waste tax.

Make small changes. Think before you drink. Perhaps the only benefit of capitalism is the one person one vote system. Know where your dollar goes. Choose Fair Trade certified or Rainforest Alliance (or both). Expect more of the industry that keeps you caffeinated and supplies a basic living to 25 million small producers globally. Demand more of your favourite café. Cast your vote knowing that the purchasing power is yours. Choose your own weapon and use it wisely.


Coffee Facts

  • According to legend, Ethiopian shepherds first discovered the caffeinating effects of the coffee berry when they noticed their goats “dancing.”
  • The name for coffee comes from the Arabic “qahhwat al-bun” meaning “wine of the bean.”
  • All coffee is grown within the Coffee Belt, a latitudinal band that follows the equator.
  • The organic structure of caffeine is in the form of 0.0016 inch crystals.
  • Globally, 25 million small producers rely on coffee for a basic living.
  • If you buy one coffee in a disposable cup per day, as an individual you will personally create around 10kgs of waste per year.
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