The environmental cost of your caffeine fix

I really like coffee, I mean reeeeally like coffee. Possibly to the point of being a little obsessed. One of the real treats of working in Asia is buying coffee beans in obscure places, as close to where it was grown as possible, and then adding to my collection of coffee at home, to be savoured later. Much like a collector of fine wine or Scottish whisky, just a lot cheaper.

Perhaps the one good legacy

Great Asian coffee, not as famous maybe as its South American cousin, is perhaps the one good legacy of the French and Dutch colonisation. Strong dark coffee made from Bolaven Plateau in Laos or from Da Lat in Vietnam served with a big slug of sweetened milk is divine, like liquid coffee-flavoured gold.

Coffee made from beans collected from bushes over 150 years old, planted by the Dutch in the Mandheling Valley in Sumatra or from the monsoon watered bushes of Malabar (India) is rich and spicy and just a sniff of the ground beans is enough to trigger memories of hot sultry days in Asia.

Yes, I really like coffee.

The ultimate coffee table book

I once had an idea to go to one of the better supermarkets and select four or five different types of coffee and then head off on a journey to trace their source.

I then planned to write a book about the journey to get there, the history, issues, etc surrounding coffee production. I even had a title ‘In Search of the Perfect Cup of Coffee’, but it remained just an idea and I suspect it’s been done by someone who woke up and smelt the coffee earlier than I did.

An instant fix or an environmental nightmare?

On a recent trip between Yok Don and Cat Tien National Parks in southern Vietnam I experienced first-hand the impact growing a crop, such as coffee, can have on the environment.

If one was to scan the coffee section of a supermarket, coffee grown in Vietnam probably wouldn’t feature as one of the varieties available. Yet ironically, it’s likely that the last cup of instant coffee you drank was made from Vietnam-grown coffee beans.

The best coffee comes from arabica bushes, but a more easily grown, higher yielding variety is robusta. Arabica beans are sold as the expensive ‘upmarket’ real coffee, whereas robusta, with its more bitter taste and higher caffeine content goes into instant coffee.

How much is too much?

As already mentioned coffee was introduced to Vietnam by the French in colonial times, primarily for use by the colonists. Over time a small domestic market developed, but Vietnam was not a major league player. After the Vietnam War, when rubber and cashew prices fell in the early 1980s, Vietnam looked to coffee to stimulate the economy of rural mountainous areas.

coffee plantation credit: Stephen Browne/FFI

With massive investment and huge effort by rural farmers, Vietnam is today the world’s biggest producer of robusta coffee. But at what cost?

While it’s true that much of the 1.1 million tonnes now grown in Vietnam each year is in areas that were initially deforested for rubber and cashew, that’s certainly not the case for all of it. To satisfy the industries need for land to expand, additional areas needed to be cleared.

Now that rubber and cashew prices are increasing, these crops are now popular again, pushing coffee into new areas. Coffee grows best in mountainous areas where the climate and soils are most suitable. Deforestation for coffee crops has already begun, and continues, in the areas where some of the last forests in Vietnam remain. Most lowland forests have already been cleared for agriculture and urbanisation.

Coffee, coffee, as far as the eye can see

Today, on my drive through the main coffee growing areas of Vietnam, I saw vast landscapes, as far as the eye can see, consist of hardly anything other than coffee. All natural habitats are gone, along with the wildlife they once supported. Watershed must be destroyed and the problems of soil erosion and flooding further down the valley must be immense.

This is in addition to the socio-economic issues in which farmers probably suffer from unstable and unpredictable harvests and consequently an unguaranteed market, in which middle men or large companies make the profits and the farmers get small returns.

Empty coffee cup

So, what can we do? As consumers of coffee we do have some power to stimulate change.

We should aim to drink only coffee that is equitably marketed (fair trade), grown sustainably (e.g. forest shade grown or organic coffee) and with due consideration to environmental issues and certainly avoid drinking too much cheap instant coffee, but that should be for taste reasons alone.