Recently I came across a wonderful sign in a café window in Durham: a simple flowchart gave you options for what to do depending on whether or not your life is good at the moment.
If your life is looking good, they recommend coming in for a cup of coffee…
If your life is not looking good, they recommend… coming in for a cup of coffee!
It is a philosophy of life that appeals to me:
- Living in the moment
- Savouring what is good
- Enjoying company
- Pausing and slowing down
A global Coffee Culture
However, somehow in all that, I have to live with the fact that coffee has its down-side.
I recently read an article about shade-grown coffee. Since the 1980s, global coffee consumption has increased year-on-year, as we have seen a growing culture of coffee-drinking. It now stands at over 150 million 60kg bags of coffee per year and is growing at a rate of 2.5% per year. In order to feed this insatiable demand, more and more coffee is being grown in big plantations. Like so many other aspects of our consumer culture, this is damaging the environment, leading to further destruction of the rain forests, dehydration and acidification of the soil, and the use of large quantities of fertilizers and pesticides.
So I know I really should stop drinking it.
But I really do enjoy a good cup of coffee.
How to keep drinking coffee while not contributing too much to the destruction of our environment
So, in my usual manner, wanting to have my cake (or cup of coffee) and drink it, I have gone for a compromise.
Since January, I have cut down my coffee drinking to no more than 2 cups a day. And I have managed to stick to that, and with it, I think I am feeling better and craving coffee far less.
I also decided to write to the two companies from which I buy most of my coffee beans: Sainsbury’s and Taylors. I had helpful responses from both, perhaps not surprisingly pointing out that the solution isn’t totally straightforward.
Taylors’ coffees gave a particularly helpful response, pointing out the different ways in which they are striving to ensure both social and environmental sustainability through their coffee production.
Much of the coffee we buy from Central America is shade grown, but in Africa this is much less common. We have been working in Uganda prototyping an approach with around 6000 smallholder farmers that is promoting shade grown coffee (amongst other good agricultural practices) in an effort to increase quality, productivity and provide some defence against increasingly unpredictable weather patterns. Over the last 4 seasons we have seen some remarkable farm improvements and are looking to take this approach to other countries we buy from – but the social and economic benefits to farming communities will always have to match the environmental impacts for us to continue promoting this and in some areas this may not be so clear cut.
So, while I am not ready yet to give up my coffee entirely, I will continue to pursue my reduced-consumption approach, and I will strive to buy only coffee that is both Fair Trade and Rain Forest Alliance certified, to do my bit to promote both social justice and environmental sustainability.
And, right now, I might just go and make a couple of nice flat whites (Taylors’ Lazy Sunday blend) and sit out in the garden with Lois to enjoy them.
The Rainforest Alliance do not stipulate shade grown coffee as part of their standard and they certify both shade grown and full sun grown coffee; however, their standards include pretty comprehensive criteria on ecosystem conservation, wildlife protection, water conservation, soil management and other environmental sustainability issues on the farm. Taylors are buying both shade and sun grown coffee. The long relationships we have with our coffee farmers are based on quality first, but with a mutual commitment to balancing economic, social and environmental improvement – prioritising one over the other is less about our own stance on the environment and more about the real needs of the communities we are sourcing from.
Very often, by building projects that address an economic or social need we achieve environmental improvements as a by-product. For example, by funding biogas digesters on smallholder coffee farms in Africa we have provided families with a clean and constant source of energy to cook with, lighting at night time, improved income, saved huge amounts of women’s time and improved respiratory health – the project is also combating deforestation, reducing greenhouse gases that would otherwise be adding to climate change and producing an organic compost for the farm… but these are secondary benefits to the socio-economic impacts.