5 factors for a responsible cup of coffee

All over the world, coffee plays an intrinsic role in our lives. It’s the beloved centrepiece of morning routines, the go-to pick-me-up during the afternoon slump, and the perfect companion to a sunrise at the lake. In Canada, it’s the second most commonly consumed beverage after water. In fact, according to the Canadian Coffee Association, 65 percent of Canadians aged 18 to 79 drank a cup yesterday.

Although its presence is ubiquitous here, coffee is cultivated in far-flung locales in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. This distance means that in the past, there was a jarring disconnect between consumers, the coffee chains profiting from the $100 billion industry, and coffee farmers, many of whom worked in unsafe conditions for poor wages.

In the last decade, coffee production has become more environmentally friendly and the livelihood of coffee farmers has improved. And thanks to organizations like the Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade, coffee lovers can make educated, sustainable choices when they’re picking out their next roast. To take part in that spirit of sustainability, consider these five factors the next time you buy coffee.

The labels

As consumers, we’re familiar with well-known label terms like “organic,” which means an outright ban on agrochemicals in production, and “Fairtrade,” which ensures farmers in developing countries receive a fair deal in the marketplace.

Another common label is “Rainforest Alliance Certified.” The Rainforest Alliance takes a holistic approach to sustainable coffee and focuses not only on ensuring that the environment is being protected where coffee is produced, but also that the farmers are properly trained, work in safe conditions, and earn fair wages. Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee farms are audited annually against a rigorous standard that takes into account environmental, social, and economic factors.

The environment

The global demand for coffee—it’s the second most tradable commodity after oil—has had an unsustainable effect on the ways coffee is grown. In the rainforest region, for decades the coffea plant has been cultivated underneath the natural shaded canopy of trees, which provided a home for animals and migratory birds. This traditional form of farming also prevented topsoil erosion. But in the 1970s, the use of agrochemicals became widespread and a new coffee plant requiring full-sun exposure was introduced. The results were devastating. “I would say one of the major factors is deforestation and cutting down native tree species in order to create coffee farms,” says Wilson Griffin, who specializes in sustainable agriculture with the Rainforest Alliance. In Central America, 2.5 million acres of forest have been cleared to make room for coffee plantations. To get the Rainforest Alliance certification, farmers cannot cut down native tree species, nor can they have done so in the recent past. Reforestation, which involves planting indigenous plants, is also encouraged.

Another factor in sustainable farming is protecting the biodiversity of the surrounding habitat. “On all Rainforest Alliance Certified Farms, the hunting of wildlife is strictly prohibited,” says Griffin. “We also require buffer zones from crop areas and habitat areas.”

Then there’s the wastewater issue. Coffee production requires massive quantities of water. To produce the beans to make just one cup of coffee, 140 litres of water are required. And to make matters worse, 70 percent of water on coffee farms used in Central America, which is chock-full of toxins and organic waste, is returned into waterways without being treated. Sustainable farms combat the wastewater issue by treating all water used in coffee processing and protecting waterways.

The use of agrochemicals

In the 1970s, the use of agrochemicals such as synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides became widespread in the coffee industry. Now that we know agrochemicals can have harsh effects on the environment and our health, sustainable coffee farms are turning away from their usage. The Rainforest Alliance outright forbids any of the Dirty Dozen chemicals and any substances banned globally under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. To earn the Organic label, as designated by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, all agrochemicals are prohibited. Some certifications like the Rainforest Alliance take a more well-rounded, lenient approach.

“In some situations, in some regions where farmers need to combat pests or drought, it’s sometimes important they have access to fertilizers if they need to,” says Griffin. “The Rainforest Alliance requires they document that and have a plan in place to scale down whatever they use.”

Safe working conditions for farmers

On some large-scale coffee plantations, employees work long hours with nearly unreachable quotas for below minimum wage, all under dangerous conditions to boot. Workers without benefits or access to childcare are often forced to bring their children to the farms, many of whom end up illegally working without any protection. Organizations like the Rainforest Alliance ban discrimination in the workplace and child labour, while ensuring access to healthcare and education for school children, protective equipment, and the right to unionize. Responsible farms also offer medical clinics with trained doctors and dignified housing with access to potable water.

For a farm to be fully sustainable, both environmentally and socially, it’s important that workers are properly trained in the basics like clearly marking substances, washing their hands and clothing, and wearing the right equipment. “They’re not necessarily hard things to implement,” says Griffin, “It’s teaching farmers and farm workers the need to have these [safety] policies and procedures in place.”

Fair wages

Annually, the global coffee industry is worth a whopping $100 billion USD. Unfortunately, these profits fail to trickle down to the coffee farmers. It may sound simple, but Griffin says the best way for coffee farmers to earn more money for their beans is by increased yields and increased quality. Using sustainable methods, farmers can produce better quality beans and negotiate premium prices for their beans.

When choosing what local roastery to support, it’s important to know the origins of the beans and the conditions they were grown under. Is the coffee farm environmentally sustainable? How does it combat deforestation and support biodiversity? Does it treat its employees with respect by paying them fair wages? Does it offer a safe working environment?

Thankfully, there are a growing number of coffee companies in Canada, including Huntsville, Ontario’s own Muskoka Roastery Coffee Co., who are sourcing their beans from farms that are socially, economically and environmentally sustainable.