What’s your coffee costing the planet? – Environmental impact of the coffee trade

What’s your coffee costing the planet? – Environmental impact of the coffee trade

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?

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.

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 agro-forestry 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 todays’ 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However, due to increased market demands in recent years, this innocuous form of agriculture has been superseded by “sun cultivation” techniques.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 1970’s, 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.

Water pollution and contamination

Contamination of waterways also pose 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 agro-forestry 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 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 recognition of such wastage. This includes composting coffee husks mixed with farm animal manure to use as organic fertilizer in farming practices.

Soil quality

Soil quality is also seen to be affected 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.

Shade grown coffee can be purchased by the bag in leading supermarkets and across the internet and are labelled as shade grown coffee. Although more expensive, these means of cultivation are the best alternatives to an environmentally detrimental and ever expanding industry.

What are your views? Have you ever bought shade grown coffee?


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!


  • 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?


  • 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!

    • 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 🙂


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

  • 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?

  • 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………

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

  • 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


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