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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.
Coffee is a hugely popular thing for us in the UK today It’s overtaken tea in it’s comsumption It’s the second most exported crop in the world next to oil palm Coffee originates from Ethiopia in lowland areas of rainforests but it’s now grown all over the tropics There are two main types of coffee that are grown, coffee arabica and coffee robusta Arabica gives us our good roasts, our nice flavored coffee and the robusta has often grown in Southeast Asian areas and in Africa produces coffee for instant brands and it’s a lot higher in caffeine. Coffee is produced throughout the tropics but it’s the northern hemisphere that’s the biggest consumer of coffee in the world.
So to get to the product that we know coffee has to go through many many processes; it has to be planted it has to be pruned and maintained, you can’t get a coffee crop until 2 to 3 years after planting a lot of coffee is hand-picked because it’s often grown on really really steep slopes and it doesn’t ripen all at the same time so you need people to go in there to get the right berries mass-produced coffees grown on flat land can be machine picked this often happens in Brazil so there’s many people involved in this process.
We’ve got the growers, we’ve got the processors we’ve got the buyers and the traders, we’ve got the roasters, we’ve got the blenders and the people they sell on to again before we get our cup of coffee So it’s estimated the coffee bean has to pass through 10 to 32 different sets of hands to get to the product that we know and love there are a 125 million coffe producers in the world and 25 million of those people are small holders because of the amount of hands that coffee has to pass through before we get to the end product it means that there can be great fluctuations in price there are many people making a lot of money from coffee throughout this long process and it’s often the small holders and the growers that are losing out at the very beginning of the process they might only get 1-2% of the profits of coffee so in 1970 a coffee grower had received 20% of the profit for the coffee he grew Today, even with Fairtrade in place the coffee grower will only received 1-2% of the profit of the crop he produces.
So combined with that small profit that many smallholders have to deal with, a coffee producer will only produce one to two crops of coffee per year, one main crop and that is their main income and they have to stretch that money for the whole year so many of these small producers are facing real problems with their food security especially when they’ve devoted most of their land to growing this crop Coffee is produced in the tropical areas of the world and a lot of forest has been cleared to produce this crop often on very steep sided hills as it said that high altitudes will improve the taste of coffee so it’s often growing on these very precipitous slopes because but the forest has been cleared and this crop has been put in place soil erosion is a huge problem and in these countries there is often a lot of rain and washes the soil away which can pollute local water courses If this crop is being produced as a monoculture it will often receive a few fertilizer applications through the growing season and it might also receive pesticide applications as well, which can also get washed into water courses and into local ecosystems So these challenges are having effects on the yields that these coffee producers are having and they’re now thinking that they’re going to have to move into new areas of land to be able to grow good crops This move into new pieces of land mean that it’s threatening rainforests again It’s not only us humans that enjoy a bit of caffeine recent research has shown that bees receive a really tiny amount the caffeine from the nectar they drink from these gorgeous smelling flowers the caffeine that the bee receives from the nectar in these flowers increases the bees memory function This in turn increases the amount of times the bees come back to pollinate these plants which means it then increases pollination success for these plants which is pretty clever!

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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