The History of a Cup of Coffee

There's more behind that morning cup than meets the eye ...

Research by Alan Thein Durning, text by Ed Ayers
Reprinted from World Watch, Sept/Oct 1994, with permission.

1. The Conventional Story

n April 22, the local Sierra Club president, Paul Pizarro, began his day with a cup of coffee on the balcony of his home overlooking San Francisco Bay. He relaxed for a few minutes enjoying the warmth of the coffee against the chill of the morning mist while reviewing his notes for the Earth Day speech he was to give. Two hours later he joined a festive gathering at Altamont, where he outlined the main priorities for California's role in halting global environmental decline: protecting the Pacific rainforest and savanna ecosystems from continuing destruction by timber and development projects; halting degradation of the state's water resources by agricultural and industrial chemicals and the denuding of watersheds; and alleviation of the social inequities that create incentives to build new suburbs in pristine hillsides far from the crime and blight of cities.
That evening, Pizarro joined a few friends for dinner in Big Sur. They sat on a terrace high above the Pacific, drinking coffee and watching the sun set over the ocean. The air cooled quickly, and he had a chilling fantasy-of humanity falling off the edge of the world after all, as the detractors of Columbus had warned. Yet, he thought, if precipitous change has become a danger to our species, perhaps it could also be our salvation. In just three years, we've seen signs of hope almost unimaginable a decade ago: the end of the Cold War, the end of South African apartheid, the global Climate Treaty, the Biodiversity Treaty, the Law of the Sea, the return of large tracts of land to the Yanomami and Inuit peoples-even the election of a more environmentally conscious U.S. administration. He let go the tension in his face, watching the ocean grow dark and feeling the warmth of the coffee in his chest.

2. The Story Not Told

izarro's day neither began nor ended with a cup of coffee, because the coffee did not
simply materialize at his lips. In fact, by the time he began brewing it in the morning, it had already been through a rather exhausting series of events-and was not yet finished, as Pizarro would discover when he pulled off the road at a gas station on the way to Altamont. In the men's room there, thousands of cups of coffee before his had begun the final stages of their journeys.
It could be said that the coffee's journey began with the picking of the beans, on a small mountain farm in a region of Colombia called Antioquia-an area not unlike some of the Sierra foothills Pizarro was familiar with in California.
But in fact, the journey really began three generations ago, when the Antioquia region was cleared of its natural forests in the first coffee boom. As a result, the region's "cloud forests" are now among the world's most endangered ecosystems-under assault by some of the same pressures confronting California's cherished redwood groves.
In Antioquia, it took 200 beans, or about 5 percent of a coffee tree's annual production, to make the two cups Pizarro drank. Over the past year, his two-cup average had amounted to the harvest of 18 coffee trees.
Growing these trees required several doses of insecticides, which were manufactured in the Rhine River Valley of Europe. Effluents from the pesticides plants had helped turn the Rhine into one of the most polluted rivers in the world, destroying much of the wildlife that had once abounded in the marshlands downstream.
In Colombia, when the coffee trees were sprayed, some of the pesticides got into the lungs of farmers. Residues from the trees washed down the mountainsides and collected in streams. There, as in Germany, the pollutants were spread to downstream ecosystems.
The beans were shipped to New Orleans in a freighter constructed in Japan, of steel made in Korea. The steel was made of iron mined on tribal lands in Papua New Guinea. The people there received little or no compensation for their lost resources and contaminated water. The mining was encouraged by the Papua New Guinea government, which promotes exports to boost its short-term revenue-even when the exported commodities diminish the long-term prospects of some of its own endangered peoples.
In New Orleans, the beans were unloaded and roasted at 400 degrees for 13 minutes. They were packaged in four-layer bags constructed of polyethylene, nylon, aluminum foil, and polyester. The three layers of plastics were made of oil shipped by tanker from Saudi Arabia. The tanker was fueled by still more oil. The plastics were fabricated in factories in Louisiana's "Cancer Corridor," where toxic industries have been disproportionately concentrated in areas where the residents are black.
The aluminum layer of the coffee bag was made in the Pacific North-west, from bauxite strip-mined in Australia and shipped across the Pacific on a barge fueled by oil from Indonesia. The mining of the bauxite had violated the ancestral land of aborigines. The refining of the aluminum was powered by a hydroelectric dam on the Columbia River, construction of which had destroyed the salmon-fishing subsistence economy of native Americans.
The bags of roasted beans were then trucked to San Francisco. The gasoline for the trucks was processed from oil extracted from the Gulf of Mexico. The refining was done at a plant near Philadelphia, where heavy air and water pollution have been linked to cancer clusters, contaminated fish, and a decline of marine wildlife throughout the Delaware River basin.
As an environmentalist, Pizarro had conscientiously avoided the use of a bleached paper filter for his morning coffee. Instead, he had used a gold-plated filter, which could be used indefinitely. He was not aware that the gold for the filter had been mined in Russia, where the production of one-tenth of an ounce of gold had generated one ton of mining waste. As rain and river water percolated through the waste, the water was acidified, causing damage to aquatic life and farmland for hundreds of kilometers downstream.
Altogether, the production of Paul Pizarro's coffee required at least four major direct uses of fossil fuels: the diesel-powered crusher that removed the beans from the fruit in Colombia; the freighter carrying the beans north; the roaster in New Orleans, which burned natural gas pumped from the ground in Oklahoma; and the gasoline for the trucks carrying the coffee and filter-and later for the car Pizzaro used to go shopping.
In addition, there were several hundred indirect uses of fossil fuel energy: for the freighters carrying the iron from Papua New Guinea and the bauxite from Australia; for the trucks hauling the plastics to the bag manufacturer and the bags to the packager; for the planes carrying salesmen and advertising executives representing the packaging materials and coffee brand. The high-rise offices of the advertising and food company executives, as well as of the media executives whose magazines and TV shows carried the coffee advertisements, were inefficiently lit, cooled, and heated by electricity generated by large amounts of coal and oil.
These two cups of coffee also contributed to the degradation of forest ecosystems in several regions: the Colombian mountains where natural forest was replaced with monoculture plantations that lack much of the biological diversity of the native forest they replaced, the tropical forests of Papua New Guinea, and the Russian woodlands that were stripped for the mining of gold.
Finally, the two cups entailed, altogether, at least four direct exploitations of indigenous peoples or cultural minorities for the benefit of the consumer culture: the iron mining in Papua New Guinea, the bauxite mining in Australia, the plastics manufacturing in Louisiana, and the aluminum refining in Washington state. These represented the same kinds of deep inequities that had led, in recent years, to a fanning of anti-Mexican sentiment throughout California. As a Californian whose grandparents had immigrated from Mexico, Pizarro had often been uncomfortably conscious of this sentiment.
But none of this crossed his mind as he sipped his evening coffee and watched the sun sink below the horizon.

Environments like this one in Costa Rica are perfect for growing coffee: warm, moist climate, rich soil, abundant water supply and hillsides for good drainage. Mature plants are in the foreground; newly planted fields are in the background.

3. Which Story is True?

oth are true.
Coffee is indeed one of the simple pleasures of life, for people everywhere. It has contributed to innumerable moments of good conversation and congeniality, and has helped people like Paul Pizarro to get started in the morning and to stay awake while driving at night.
It is also true, however, that the production of a single cup of coffee requires the participation of an enormous array of materials, processes, and industries. The question is not whether the final product is good or bad, but whether the particular methods used to produce it are appropriate.
It is possible to continue making coffee in a way that is-when multiplied by the hundreds of millions of people who enjoy it-very destructive to the Earth's biological systems and human cultures. But it may also be possible to produce the same product with far less impact. And that may be true for almost every product we consume.
NOTE: All of the facts in this account are true for the production of coffee in general, but it is not possible to trace the inputs to a particular cup of coffee. The beans could have come from Kenya instead of Colombia; the gold from Brazil instead of Russia, etc. Thus, this account is a composite, and Paul Pizarro is a fictional name. However, all of the places, peoples, and processes mentioned are involved in the making of coffee as stated. The descriptions of human and environmental impacts are true.

Alan Thein Durning is a former senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute. He now heads Northwest Environment Watch, a regional environmental policy research group based in Seattle, Washington.