The Environmental Impact of Coffee Production: What’s Your Coffee Costing The Planet?

environmental impact of the coffee trade

Updated for 2019.

Today we focus on the environmental impact of the coffee trade and what consumers can do differently to help.

Coffee. It’s the beverage that many of us rely on to galvanize us into action in the mornings and in today’s world, it’s more than popular: it’s ubiquitous.

But coffee is so much more than just a drink. As the world’s second most tradable commodity after oil, coffee is now a multibillion dollar global industry and growing. We are all aware of fair trade coffee but have you ever stopped to think what impacts the world’s favourite beverage is having on our planet?

Coffee comes in many shapes and sizes. Some brands focus on being organic, carbon negative or non-GMO while others are not as environmentally friendly.

environmental impact of the coffee trade environmental impact of the coffee tradeenvironmental impact of the coffee trade

The burgeoning coffee culture that has sprung up over the last few decades has led to an overwhelming increase in demand for this liquid gold which has had a knock-on effect on the environment, with monoculture and sun-grown coffee now the norm. And given that most coffee growing regions are also home to some of the most delicate ecosystems on earth, the potential for serious damage is great.

Environmental Impact of the Coffee Trade


Traditional forms of growing coffee

Coffee is typically cultivated in tropical and subtropical areas at high elevations, often in rugged mountainous areas and naturally grows under a shaded canopy of trees. Traditional coffee is often integral to agroforestry systems in which tree species are cultivated together with coffee and other agricultural commodities.

These regions are home to many different floras that contribute to high biodiversity levels. The sheltering from canopies also provides a valuable habitat for indigenous animals and insects, as well as preventing topsoil erosion and removing the need for chemical fertilizers.

Moreover, because many traditional methods have been passed down to today’s’ farmers by previous generations before synthetic pesticides and fertilizers were widely used in agriculture, a human-land use equilibrium has evolved in traditional coffee production over time.

However, due to increased market demands in recent years, this innocuous form of agriculture has been superseded by “sun cultivation” techniques.

Sun Cultivation Coffee

Originating in the 1970s, sun cultivated (or sun grown) coffee is produced on plantations, where forestry is cleared so that coffee is grown in rows as a monoculture with no canopy.

Sun cultivated coffee, in concert with the necessary addition of fertilizer, creates the highest yield of coffee, but eliminates the diversity of plants which support an array of insects and animals, posing detrimental impacts to the biodiversity of the region, as well as other environmental harms.


Farmers have been positively encouraged to replace their traditional and supposedly inefficient farming methods with the higher yielding technique of sun cultivation, which has resulted in over 2.5 million acres of forest being cleared in Central America alone to make way for coffee farming in this way.

Deforestation trends are serious throughout the coffee producing lands of Latin America and remarkable biodiversity values are at stake. Latin America’s tropical forests are critical ecologically for purposes of protection of atmospheric dynamics, water quality, wildlife species, as well as economically.

environmental impact of the coffee trade

Water pollution and contamination

Contamination of waterways also poses serious environmental threats from the processing of coffee beans. Largely irrespective of how coffee is grown, discharges from coffee processing plants represent a major source of river pollution. Ecological impacts result from the discharge of organic pollutants from the processing plants to rivers and waterways, triggering eutrophication of water systems and robbing aquatic plants and wildlife of essential oxygen.

Agrochemical Usage

Traditional coffee is often integral to agroforestry systems in which tree species are cultivated together with coffee and other agricultural commodities. This cultivation of coffee relies on much lower chemical inputs than industrial plantations due to the other plants reducing the susceptibility to pests.

However, sun cultivated coffee often employs intensive pesticides and chemicals that present serious health and ecological concerns. The World Resources Institute (WRI) carried out a recent study that reported extensive human exposure to pesticides in Latin America and elsewhere in the developing world. The correlation between increased nitrogen fertilizer application and the widespread removal of shade cover from Central American coffee plantations is evident, with these heavy synthetic fertilizer inputs contributing to increasing contamination of waterways and aquifers.


Unsurprisingly, there is also an enormous amount of waste produced during the manufacturing of coffee.

The process of separating the commercial product (the beans) from the coffee cherries generates enormous volumes of waste material in the form of pulp, residual matter, and parchment. Over a 6 month period in 1988, it was estimated that processing 547,000 tons of coffee in Central America generated as much as 1.1 million tons of pulp and polluted 110,000 cubic metres of water each day. This excess waste can also play havoc with soil and water sources as the coffee pulp is often dumped into streams, severely degrading fragile systems.

Recent years have witnessed important progress in the development of environmentally sound measures due to the recognition of such wastage. This includes composting coffee husks mixed with farm animal manure to use as organic fertilizer in farming practices.

Soil quality

The environmental impact of the coffee trade impacts the Earth’s soil as well. Soil quality suffers when sun cultivated practices are favoured over the traditional growing means. The elimination of shade cover can cause significant impacts on various soil quality parameters, with higher rates of erosion occurring on renovated coffee plantations where vegetation has been reduced.

A sustainable alternative? Shade Grown Coffee

An environmentally favoured alternative to sun cultivated coffee is shade grown coffee. In this method, coffee plants are interspersed beneath local forest trees, mimicking the way coffee grows naturally in these regions.

According to the American Birding Association (ABA), shade coffee plantations are second only to undisturbed forests as the best habitat for birds and other fauna in Latin America.

What’s more is the presence of vegetation amongst coffee plants reduces the need for intense herbicide preparations, supports at least 50% of the original forest snakes and spider fauna and protects topsoil effectively.

Where can I buy shade grown coffee?

Fortunately, you don’t have to go far to find high-quality shade grown coffee. Shade grown coffee can be purchased by the bag online. For exampe, Volcanica coffee is one choice. 

Volcanica Costa Rican Shade Grown Coffee

Shade Grown Coffee

Volcanica is a family run business. Their coffee comes from a single origin in Costa Rica and is grown at an very high altitude. This commitment to quality makes for a smooth cup of coffee that is sourced in a sustainable way. 

Most importantly, Volcanica’s products carry the official seals shown below. 

Environmental impact of the coffee trade

These seals prove that the company has met the Fair Trade Alliance and Rain Forest Alliance’s requirements and is officially certified.

Ready to be a responsible coffee drinker? 

Try Shade Grown Coffee and Help the Environment Now!

The environmental impact of the coffee trade is significant, but consumers can do their part by buying environmentally friendly and responsibly sourced coffee.

About the Author Victoria Moore

Victoria Moore holds a first class honours in Geography and an M.Sc. in Environmental Governance from Manchester University. She has worked as a geography tutor and recently returned from a six month journey through Asia. Victoria is passionate about the environmental movement and aspires to have a positive impact on the planet through her work and play!

Leave a Comment:

Sarah Pritchard says January 11, 2014

Hi Victoria,

Interesting post. I’m currently doing a project on the Life Cycle Appraisal of Nestle Instant coffee and the impact the product and the company has had on the environment. Do you have any recommendations on any articles which would help in calculating the carbon footprint of Nestle coffee at any of it’s LCA stages?


    Mark Whitman says January 12, 2014

    Hi Sarah,
    I will pass on your message to Victoria, but to answer your questions. Your best bet is to look at the Carbon Trust’s LCA / product Carbon Footprinting tool and standard. Here’s the link.

    Simon says July 23, 2017


Kathy Clarkson says November 9, 2014

Hi Victoria,
I am doing a research project on Coffee, and it’s impacts around the world. Perhaps, you could recommend any particular websites. Including information, relating to my topic.
Thanks! I appreciate it!

    Giorgia Bernasconi says March 15, 2016

    Hi Kathy, i’m a swiss student and i’m doing research on the environmental impact of coffee too!
    would you in share some information with me? i would really appreciate it!
    Thank you 🙂


Dylan Trevarthen says March 1, 2016

thanks for all the information, this was one of the most useful websites for information for my geography assignment

Leslie says October 23, 2016

Hi, I was wondering if I can get some help. I really want to use the information from this article and I need to cite it, but I cannot find the date that this article came out?

    Mark Whitman says October 28, 2016

    Hi Leslie, the article was published in 2013. All the best!

Jianne says February 21, 2017

Hi Victoria ,
thank you for this article it really helped with my assignment!

Beth A Borchers says April 19, 2017

Hi Victoria, a most informative, well written article. I am currently writing a book on how little choices can have a huge impact on the environment. Your article was extremely helpful. While I can’t go into all the detail you did I must present the importance of making informed choices when it comes to this popular morning brew.
Thanks again………

Ritika says June 1, 2017

I too am doing a project and it is highly beneficial for my project. …I hope it would do the same for everyone

chelsy says June 27, 2017

hi victoria,
i am doing a project at school about child labour coffee and what impact it has on our enviroment, do you have any suggestions on what i should add into my report? cheers

Sara says January 25, 2018

There is a small coffee company in Canada that is addressing deforestation and waste in a progressive way – they have invented and produced the worlds FIRST solar powered coffee bean drying oven, in Honduras, used to DRY the coffee beans after harvesting. (Few people realize that coffee beans have to be dehydrated to reduce the moisture content before the green beans are shipped north, to American markets, for roasting and distribution. Many farmers in rural areas are forced to clear cut forest in order to fuel the fire to their beans, but the ‘Cafe Solar’ product, produced by a women run cooperative in Honduras, uses a giant solar oven to do this!! And at night, to keep the oven working, they use a special bio-fuel developed from the coffee husks themselves. Further, the farms that supply this cooperative are part of the IOC protocol – integrated open canopy. This is a new designation that is even BETTER than shade grown. Farmers located in a special land corridor through central america are encouraged to devote 50% of their land to reforestation/natural habitat, and 50% to coffee farming. In doing so, the land is left completely alone along key migratory routes for birds and animals, and the farmers are paid a carbon credit – a guaranteed income to their family.

The entire process is not only sustainable – it is replenishing to the earth and its resources. It is remarkably innovative. Check out the Merchants of Green Coffee Company in Toronto, Ontario. One of a kind!! Truly.

    connor says says June 6, 2019


11 Things That Are Bad For The Environment That You Do Every Day – Ketepaultals – Blog,News,Business,Health says April 13, 2018

[…] Ah, the daily nectar from the gods. I’m a coffee lover, and the mere idea of giving up my morning (and noon, and 3 p.m., and 8 p.m….) cup of joe gives me heart palpitations that totally aren’t related to caffeine, I swear. But unfortunately, the coffee trade isn’t easy on the Earth — Sustainable Business Toolkit reports that not only does the coffee trade cause deforestation, but the process of turning coffee cherries into ready-to-go ground coffee results in a lot of waste. […]

Anne Morrissey says May 24, 2018

We live next door to a large coffee roaster who roast 5 Days a week. They roast on site for their coffee shop + 2 other coffee shops that they own + they wholesale on line & sell roasted beans at their shops, this is a lot of roasting. The emissions we believe are posing health risks to us i.e. chaff & the acrid smell & unbelievably they have coffee drinking patrons sitting right next to the roaster while in operation. Hundreds of hession bags full of green beans are stored between the drinking area & the rest room, surely this is a health problem.
What are your thoughts?

Kelsey says August 23, 2018

I found this article helpful for an assignment I was doing wine and grape production and found nothing so I considered reading up and tea and coffee to see if I could find something to do my task on instead, before I make a descisin to change does anyone have links of the environmental impacts of the production of wine and grapes.

Thank you,

dicklon fridget says June 6, 2019

i like this, very fun to read, good info 😉

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