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coffee sustainability - preserving age old traditions
age old sustainable coffee traditions

No Death to Coffee: Sustainability & Survival

According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, at least 60% of all coffee species are at risk of disappearing due to climate change. This includes Arabica, the origin of the world’s most popular coffee, which is now categorised as endangered.

Turkish coffee pot heating
Ancient traditions – image by Serdar Dinç from Pixabay

Coffee’s Origins

Coffee, as a bean to be chewed and later as a beverage has a history of more than 1400 years – its origins either the Yemen or Ethiopia (depending on whether you ask a Yemeni or an Ethiopian) and both cultures have long records and legends of coffee. One such legend is that the Ethiopian goatherd Kaldi noticed the effect of eating the red berries off a specific tree had on his goats’ energy. He took the berries to a local Sufi who was not impressed and tossed the berries in the fire – the resulting smell was the one we all know and love. Kaldi was transfixed, he rescued the now roasted beans, ground them, added water and so in the year 750 the first cup of coffee was brewed and enjoyed.

As an intense brew it had spread throughout the Islamic world by the 13th century, and in these regions this style (similar to Turkish or Greek traditions) remains favoured. To many, these Yemeni and Ethiopian beans, ground together with a couple of cardamom pods (which I first encountered as a teenager in Jeddah souk), will always be the ultimate in coffee and the idea they may not survive is a terrifying one.

The coffee drinking tradition spread quickly (Marco Polo is reputed to have bought beans from the Red Sea port at Mocha) although did not become popular in Europe until the 17th century. Today coffee is probably the world’s favourite beverage, yet scientists believe that current conservation measures for wild coffee species are inadequate to ensure its long-term future. Threats to wild coffee plants include deforestation, climate change, and the spread and increasing severity of fungal pathogens and pests.

Today coffee is the world’s second most traded item – after oil!

Map of Ethiopia & Yemen with coffee beans
The Origins of coffee: Ethiopia and the Yemen – image by John Iglar from Pixabay

Coffee Sustainability amid Political Turmoil

Another major problem for coffee sustainability and survival is that many of the regions that produce the world’s finest coffees are also regions suffering long-term political instability and war. The Yemen – source of that most wondrous coffee variety, Mocha, has been engulfed in political turmoil and outright war for more than 10 years affecting care for the coffee plants, production and export.

Many great coffee regions of Central and South America, including Guatemala, Nicaragua and Colombia have been affected by economic and political instabilities.

Coffee sustainability & survival as demand increases

It’s estimated that by 2050 the world will need 280 million sacks of coffee annually to meet the demand of caffeine addicted consumers, but there’ll be just 180 million to be had. The combination of the decline of wild coffee plants and increased demand means there will simply not be enough coffee for everyone. And demand is growing. Even if there is some reduction in consumption by western drinkers due to health concerns, huge emerging markets such as China (where coffee consumption is skyrocketing) more than make up for this.

This not only affects the future of your morning coffee, but the livelihoods of millions of people across the ‘coffee belt’ – the equatorial regions with altitudes between 800 and 2,000m where coffee prefers to grow. In Ethiopia alone roughly 15 million people are dependent on the coffee farming industry.

coffee beans and cardamom pod
Add cardamom to your coffee – image by Липцо Козерога from Pixabay

Coffee sustainability & survival: Hybrid Initiatives

Single O, as one of the founding members of the World Coffee Research Checkoff Fund, have been following new initiatives in coffee agricultural science that could help increase the amount of coffee produced and, in turn, provide greater economic stability to the lives of coffee farmers in Africa and South America.

One of these projects is the development of F1 coffee hybrids. In coffee, as in other crops, F1 hybrid varieties are created by mixing two genetically distinct parents. It’s not genetically modified (GMO) but simply humans facilitating a breeding process. The benefit of F1 hybrids is that they tend to have higher production and higher disease resistance than non-hybrids, while maintaining the quality and taste of the coffee.

The other benefit of F1 hybrids like the Starmaya is that they are more climate resilient which is important when you consider that 79% of currently suitable coffee areas will soon start to face temperatures well above what is optimum for growing coffee. In Ethiopia, for example, 60% of the land used for coffee production could become unsuitable for use by the end of the century because of climate change. 

coffee sustainability - Hand picking and sorting coffee supports millions of farmers worldwide
Hand sorting coffee beans – image by Livier Garcia from Pexels

Coffee sustainability – the impact of coffee pods

Coffee pods have become increasingly popular – simple, no mess and, as a friend tried to convince me was a positive, always the same. But what happens to all these millions of empty coffee pods? Due to the manufacturing processes and waste the vast majority of coffee pods are not environmentally friendly and not recyclable – they end up as land fill.

Your options – due your research and opt for one of the few brands that make recyclable pods (assuming you like their coffee).

Or, even better buy beans. Luxuriate in the smell as you grind them. Adjust the grind and strength to the coffee pot you are using and how you are feeling. Do you really want every cup of coffee identical?

Single O – Cafe & coffee roaster supports farmers

In their fight for climate justice, Single O has also partnered with Pura Cepa, an organisation focussed on innovation and coffee sustainability in the processing methods. Founded in 2016 in Colombia, they developed a project to revolutionise the current processing techniques available to farmers and to improve the sustainability of the coffee industry as a whole. Their approach is to improve the social, economic and environmental issues faced during coffee production, enhancing the lives for everyone involved in the industry.

In 2020, Single O donated a portion of sales from their Ugandan coffee to the community where the beans are grown, and those funds were used to build a new well. Before the well was built, their only access water was by walking to the local stream which is heavily contaminated. Now, the 28,000 strong community have clean, safe water throughout the year.

More info on coffee, sustainability, research and projects

Single O are an eco-friendly Sydney coffee roaster and café committed to numerous initiatives to help increase the amount of coffee produced and enhance the lives of coffee farmers. https://singleo.com.au

Read more on Sydney’s journey towards greater sustainability here.

http://worldcoffeeresearch.org/  An organisation committed to grow, protect, and enhance supplies of quality coffee while improving the livelihoods of the families who produce it. A site with lots of information about all aspects of coffee and their projects.

https://www.almokha.com/  An American coffee importer also working to help coffee farmers in the Yemen. Their website has a lot of information about coffee, its origins and history.

Al-Aqeeq is another US coffee importer also involved with the sustainability of Yemeni coffee with particular emphasis on encouraging farmers away from production of the addictive Qat (khat) toward coffee farming.  https://www.yemencoffeeonline.com/

Catherine Spence
Expat kid, deck hand, book seller, tour leader… Catherine has lived, worked and wandered in 100+ countries (and one ocean) accompanied by a pack full of books and a travel coffee press. Now at home in Tibet she valiantly struggles to instill the concepts of refillable water bottles and recycling to her extended family and dreams of her next visit to a source of salt & pepper squid.