Coffee: Grounds for a Heated Discussion


Photo by Studio 6 Coffee

College is the time when most people experience a big life change—their coffee intake. Overwhelmed by school, work, and deadlines, coffee is often just the thing to keep a student powering through an exhausting day. That has definitely been the case for me. Yet, as an environmental studies major and coffee consumer, I began to hear about the implications of coffee production and developed a desire to know more.

Coffee is second to gasoline in the list of most traded things in the world. Such high coffee demand and consumption has serious implications. As a society of coffee drinkers, we must wake up to the negative impacts of our consumption, usually with respect to coffee growers and the environment.

Brewing Controversies

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Much of the problem with coffee stems from its distribution system. Many small farmers that depend on coffee production for their income and wellbeing have little access to markets, and are therefore forced to sell to a middleman. This middleman pays them a small percentage of the market price for their product. Their coffee can go through as many as twenty middlemen, who each take a large percentage of the profits from the farmers.

On many large coffee plantations, farmers are paid the equivalent of sweatshop wages. According to Roast Magazine’s Daily Coffee News, a case documented in Nicaragua showed wages to be as low as $2-3 per day, with no overpay or benefits required by law. In addition, children are often brought on these farms to increase supply in cheap ways, and, as they are not legally employed, they don’t fall under labor protection laws.


A sun coffee plantation in Ecuador. Photo by Ecuador Wonders

These coffee farms also create a large environmental impact. In many parts of the world, including Mexico and Latin America, traditional shade grown coffee has been replaced with mono-cropping. These large parcels of sun grown coffee have been introduced to increase supply and create large profits at a high cost to our environment. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, traditional shade grown coffee is highly beneficial to biodiversity in tropical forest ecosystems in Latin America, supporting at least 180 species of birds as well as other tropical forest species. In addition to loss of forests and habitats for many species that thrive in traditional shade grown coffee environments, sun grown coffee is linked to increased pesticide and fertilizer use, causing river pollution and decreased soil quality. 

Coffee production is at risk due to the effects of climate change, which can threaten a lot of coffee crops in large producing countries. High temperatures, drought, excess rainfall, or pests, all attributed to climate change, contribute to lower yields in crops world wide.

In an attempt to address these important issues, many buzz words and certification stamps are being placed on coffee sold today. Words like “fair trade,” “organic,” or “shade grown” are used to help consumers find more sustainable choices, each aiming to address specific issues of coffee production.

The Fair Trade certification simplifies the buyer and producer supply chain and helps farmers get rewarded for their production, USDA organic coffee tries to eliminate substances like pesticides and fertilizers, while Rainforest Alliance and shade grown coffee are meant to protect the land and wildlife around it.

Yet, although these certifications have good intentions and can be a great way to get consumers to think about important issues, they often don’t offer a lot of transparency. For instance, according to the International Cocoa Organization, in order to gain a Rainforest Alliance certification, only 30% of a coffee bag has to be grown under the Rainforest Alliance criteria, while the source of the rest is often unknown. Similarly, the Fair Trade certification system includes flaws, as retailers, rather than producers abroad, can capture the extra revenue from the products.

With such a complex supply chain, it can be difficult to know the exact standards and regulations involved with getting our coffee from the farmer and into our cups. The best way to ensure environmental and social integrity is by knowing where our coffee come from.

By eliminating some of the players in the supply chain, and connecting to the farmers that grow it, we can find out if our coffee was produced responsibly. This is what the third wave coffee movement is attempting to achieve.

Third Wave Coffee: Farm to Coffee Shop

Consumers learn about the coffee there are drinking at the Case Study Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon. Photo by: Barista Magazine.

Consumers learn about the coffee they are drinking at the Case Study Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Barista Magazine.

Third wave coffee is an emerging movement, in which high quality coffee is produced and treated as an artisan or craft beverage—such as wine. This new crusade follows second wave coffee–the first attempt made by consumers to connect with the origins of their coffee and improve its quality.

In addition to offering an alternative drinking experience, in which coffee is treated with much attention and care, this new coffee crusade is attempting to bridge the gap between consumers and producers. Certified or not, this type of coffee can improve transparency through building direct relationships between the shop and the farm.

Click on the image above for a brief video explanation on third wave coffee

Portland, Oregon is one of the biggest third wave coffee locations, with companies such as the original Stumptown Coffee and Case Study Coffee. The emerging third wave movement in Portland also includes Third Wave Coffee Tours, meant to get consumers involved in the coffee making process with tours of the city’s best roasters and coffee shops.

The third wave coffee movement is also emerging in Santa Barbara, California, with companies like the French Press and Castle Coffee Roasters, their sister company, as well as Handlebar Coffee Roasters. These companies are dedicated to roasting high quality coffee that has been sourced from environmentally and socially friendly farms.

Coffee Farming in California

Surprisingly enough, our own backyard can be an ideal location for coffee production. Jay Ruskey, an experimental farmer and owner of Good Land Organics, believes that Southern California is the next new capital for specialty coffee. Ruskey explains that the low maturation period, or the time from flowering to the harvest, in California’s shady mountains is similar to that in tropic areas where high quality coffee is produced. Good Land Organics uses latitude to replace the altitude necessary to produce coffee in many tropical areas.

Coffee grown next to avocados on Jay Ruskey’s farm, Good Land Organics, in Goleta, CA. Ruskey grows avocados and coffee beans together in order to conserve water. Photo by NPR

Coffee grown next to avocados on Jay Ruskey’s farm, Good Land Organics, in Goleta, CA. Ruskey grows avocados and coffee beans together in order to conserve water. Photo by NPR

Good Land Organics process of separating the skin from the cherry. Photo by Good Land Organics

Good Land Organics’ process of separating the skin from the cherry. Photo by Good Land Organics

Ruskey is implementing another important aspect into coffee production: education. Ruskey’s farm incorporates a Seed to Cup educational program and tours of the coffee farm; these programs bring people together in order to learn about the complex coffee making process, creating a greater appreciation for coffee, as well as an opportunity for consumers to understand how coffee is grown responsibly.

The Future of Coffee

According to Ruskey, the future of coffee looks promising and is heading from third wave coffee to an even more transparent system. “I think there will be a huge change in where coffee is bought,” Ruskey mentions. “In the last seven to eight years, coffee has been going from farm to coffee shop. Now, we are trying to specialize coffee and create a new system to ensure that farmers get rewarded for the quality of their coffee.”

Ruskey believes that the best thing consumers can do in ensuring social and environmental responsibility of coffee, is to inquire. Many third wave coffee shops can educate consumers about the sources of the coffee and the production process. When buying coffee at the store, read the packaging, and do additional research on the particular farm it came from. You don’t have to be an expert on coffee, but find out more about how it was grown and the farmers that produced it.

The good news is that, if you need that extra energy boost in the morning, there are things you can do to make sure you are getting it in a sustainable way, which does not negatively impact the coffee growers and the environment. The key is doing our research to ensure that the quality of our coffee, along with our treatment of the people growing it and our environment, is met.

For more information on coffee production in California visit


Farmworkers Left Behind: The Human Cost of Coffee Production


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