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Coffee; from bean to cup

Hetty Ninnis, head gardener of one of the biomes at the Eden project, Cornwall, explains the problems with sustainability caused by coffee production.

Is it possible that the age of ‘enlightenment’ began with the opening of coffee houses?!

Some historians believe it’s no coincidence that productivity in industry began to rise as coffee replaced beer as the morning drink of choice in the western world. Whether this is true or not, few could deny that coffee has become part of our daily routine with 2.25 billion cups drank every day worldwide.

If we think back to some of the key concepts of sustainability covered in Week 1, the growth and sale of coffee globally is a fantastic case study for considering supply chain processes, commodification and food equity. Some native coffee plants are most productive when grown under the shade of a forest canopy which can encourage producers to maintain rather than clear land so the issues mentioned in the video above are commonly discussed when we consider sustainability of this product.

Take a look at this video above, recorded by the head gardener at the Eden Project’s Rainforest Biome, Henrietta Ninnis and think about the sustainability issues raised by coffee production. Can you spot the key concepts?

One of the most striking facts about coffee production is the length of the supply chain. As Henrietta explained, a bean can pass through 30 different pairs of hands before it reaches the consumer. This process is outlined in figure 3.6.1 and forms part of the Eden Project’s coffee exhibit next to the coffee plants in the Rainforest Biome.

A diagram of the route coffee beans take, showing the large number of steps in the production of coffee. It illustrates that the growth, picking, processing and packing are generally carried out in the country of origin and then trading takes place to sell that product to other countries that will then import, roast and grind coffee before selling it on to be brewed. Figure 3.6.1 The journey that coffee takes from plant to cup.

One of the biggest problems with a supply chain this long is the low margin of the eventual cost of a cup of coffee that the grower receives. With a large proportion of growers being small scale, independent farmers, the likelihood that livelihoods and economic stability are dictated by a good crop or market value is very high. Historically, market value has had a massive impact on coffee producers.

For example, when coffee prices were regulated by the International Coffee Organisation, export quotas were imposed and the price of a pound of coffee guaranteed to the grower was between $1.00 and $1.50 in 1963 [1]. This was in place until 1989 when the U.S eliminated quota limits based on demand, and by 1992 the price had fallen to $0.49 a pound. Growers were in deficit as the cost of the production at that time was $0.70. Sharp falls in market price in the following 20 years generally followed economic recessions, but as demand has recently grown, sharp increases have been recorded. This is a good example of how commodification and supply chain complexity combine to feed into the sustainability of a product.

You can also get more information about the coffee plant (Coffea arabica) from the Eden Project’s website by clicking on the link at the bottom of this page.


  1. Robbins RH. Coffee, Fair Trade, and the Commodification of Morality. Reviews in Anthropology. 2013; 42:4, 243-263.
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