Pete Poovanna: The coffee economy booms, the Amazon forest vanishes. So what's the solution?

    1 of 4 2 of 4

      By Pete Poovanna

      Coffee is the second-most consumed beverage in the world after water. Also, coffee is the second-most traded commodity after crude oil, worth over $100 billion worldwide.

      That puts it ahead of commodities like natural gas, gold, oil, sugar, and corn.

      We drink around 600 billion cups of coffee every year and around 25 million people, including my father, rely on coffee to support their families. If we look at the coffee farms of world’s largest coffee-producing country, Brazil, you will notice that a large area of land is covered with coffee plants and nothing but coffee plants.

      If you wonder how they would do this, it is obvious that millions of trees are brought down to make coffee farms. This is worrisome when seen through the prism of climate change. The entire ecosystem is destroyed in the making of such farms. While the economy around coffee grows, the Amazon rainforest vanishes.

      Several studies have confirmed that deforestation is an important factor in global climate change. Coffee plants can store carbon. However, forests store up to 100 times more carbon than coffee farms of the same area.

      Furthermore, coffee is a water-intensive crop to grow. Water Footprint Network estimates that a standard cup of coffee or espresso (125 ml) requires 140 litres of water.

      Meanwhile, droughts in coffee-producing nations could hit production, and companies will be forced to conserve water, especially at the farm. According to a 2016 study, around one-quarter of the carbon footprint of coffee production comes from the farm. Therefore in the long term, this will force coffee growers to ensure sustainable farming practices.

      getting ready to engage over the coffee beans. ">
      Indian cobras getting ready to engage over the coffee beans. 
      Anand Pereira

      If you ever wonder how coffee reaches you, it all begins from the farm. The average coffee plant takes eight to 11 months to yield coffee cherries that contain coffee beans. During this period, plants need a large amount of water, which comes from artifically created irrigation systems. Hand-picked beans are then washed and dried. After roasting and packaging, the coffee gets transported to the market.

      These processes are not only water-intensive but also energy-intensive. All of this goes into making a delicious cup of coffee for you, with a large carbon footprint. But, how do we make sure that all coffee grown is better for the climate and people? 

      If I said that my father grows an ecofriendly coffee on his farm in South India, people here in North America would probably say that I am joking. I can also say that one of the world's finest varieties of coffee comes from my father's farm.

      As a son of a passionate coffee grower, I have always seen my father growing a variety of trees on his farm. The only question I asked him all the time was: why are you growing all these trees on your farm?

      A rare kind of wild flower blooming next to the coffee bush.">
      A rare kind of wild flower blooming next to the coffee bush.
      Anand Pereira

      I also remember telling him that he should follow the Brazilian model. Isn't it common sense that one should grow coffee plants instead of trees on his farm? I doubted his judgment and his business model.

      Now 20 years later, I realize that my father’s dream was not only to grow coffee but a forest. He has a dense shade-grown coffee farm that resembles a forest. Shade-grown coffee is from coffee plants grown under a canopy of trees, promoting natural ecological relationships.

      Coffee forests in India are unique as they are grown symbiotically along with multiple crops such as cinnamon, black pepper, and oranges, which produce an exceptional taste.

      Coffee consumers around the world need to understand that India’s shade-grown ecofriendly coffee forests are exceptional not only because they enrich the taste, but they also enhance the wealth of biodiversity. They invite varieties of wild birds and other animals to the coffee forest. This is unique when compared with other coffee-producing nations in the world.

      Such a farming process not only shows the nexus between wildlife and the coffee but also encourages wildlife conservation.

      Rain water collected for irrigation purposes.">
      Rain water collected for irrigation purposes.
      Anand Pereira

      In recent years, climate change has played havoc in farming areas, resulting in unprecedented droughts or excessive rain. The excessive rainwater is usually collected in ponds or lakes on an ecofriendly farm and used later for irrigation purposes.

      Water is the critical element for the survival of coffee plants and is necessary for boosting the coffee production. Therefore, rainwater conservation forms another interesting part of India’s ecofriendly coffee forests. These bodies of water are used for fish and other wildlife, including waterfowl. Lakes on coffee farms are also a major contributor to local ecosystem's richness and biodiversity.

      At end of the day, what does India’s coffee saga mean to the rest of the world? An agroforestry and an effective ecosystem in which trees are grown among coffee that is profitable and sustainable!

      Although India has such an impeccable record of growing ecofriendly coffee, North America still doesn't import much of it from this country.

      Meanwhile, India's attempt in joining the fair-trade bandwagon has been exemplary so far. The government mandates a minimum wage for workers. Coffee labourers also receive free housing, maternity leave, child care, pensions and other benefits.

      While coffee consumers need to understand that it is time to demand a better cup of coffee, other coffee-producing nations in the world should learn from India's story.

      Pete Poovanna is a research fellow at the Laboratory for Alternative Energy Conversion in Vancouver and is a PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University. He's also a former international project coordinator in Bosch, Germany. Special thanks to Dr. Anand Pereira for granting permission to use his photographs.