The History of a Cup of Coffee
Research by Alan Thein Durning, text by Ed Ayers
There's more behind that morning cup than meets the eye ...
Reprinted from World Watch, Sept/Oct 1994, with permission.
1. The Conventional Story
n April 22, the local Sierra Club president, Paul Pizarro,
began his day with a cup of coffee on the balcony of his home overlooking
San Francisco Bay. He relaxed for a few minutes enjoying the warmth of the
coffee against the chill of the morning mist while reviewing his notes for
the Earth Day speech he was to give. Two hours later he joined a festive
gathering at Altamont, where he outlined the main priorities for California's
role in halting global environmental decline: protecting the Pacific rainforest
and savanna ecosystems from continuing destruction by timber and development
projects; halting degradation of the state's water resources by agricultural
and industrial chemicals and the denuding of watersheds; and alleviation
of the social inequities that create incentives to build new suburbs in
pristine hillsides far from the crime and blight of cities.
That evening, Pizarro joined a few friends for dinner
in Big Sur. They sat on a terrace high above the Pacific, drinking coffee
and watching the sun set over the ocean. The air cooled quickly, and he
had a chilling fantasy-of humanity falling off the edge of the world after
all, as the detractors of Columbus had warned. Yet, he thought, if precipitous
change has become a danger to our species, perhaps it could also be our
salvation. In just three years, we've seen signs of hope almost unimaginable
a decade ago: the end of the Cold War, the end of South African apartheid,
the global Climate Treaty, the Biodiversity Treaty, the Law of the Sea,
the return of large tracts of land to the Yanomami and Inuit peoples-even
the election of a more environmentally conscious U.S. administration. He
let go the tension in his face, watching the ocean grow dark and feeling
the warmth of the coffee in his chest.
2. The Story Not Told
izarro's day neither began nor ended with a cup of coffee,
because the coffee did not
simply materialize at his lips. In fact, by the time he began brewing it
in the morning, it had already been through a rather exhausting series of
events-and was not yet finished, as Pizarro would discover when he pulled
off the road at a gas station on the way to Altamont. In the men's room
there, thousands of cups of coffee before his had begun the final stages
of their journeys.
It could be said that the coffee's journey began with
the picking of the beans, on a small mountain farm in a region of Colombia
called Antioquia-an area not unlike some of the Sierra foothills Pizarro
was familiar with in California.
But in fact, the journey really began three generations
ago, when the Antioquia region was cleared of its natural forests in the
first coffee boom. As a result, the region's "cloud forests" are
now among the world's most endangered ecosystems-under assault by some of
the same pressures confronting California's cherished redwood groves.
In Antioquia, it took 200 beans, or about 5 percent
of a coffee tree's annual production, to make the two cups Pizarro drank.
Over the past year, his two-cup average had amounted to the harvest of 18
Growing these trees required several doses of insecticides,
which were manufactured in the Rhine River Valley of Europe. Effluents from
the pesticides plants had helped turn the Rhine into one of the most polluted
rivers in the world, destroying much of the wildlife that had once abounded
in the marshlands downstream.
In Colombia, when the coffee trees were sprayed, some
of the pesticides got into the lungs of farmers. Residues from the trees
washed down the mountainsides and collected in streams. There, as in Germany,
the pollutants were spread to downstream ecosystems.
The beans were shipped to New Orleans in a freighter
constructed in Japan, of steel made in Korea. The steel was made of iron
mined on tribal lands in Papua New Guinea. The people there received little
or no compensation for their lost resources and contaminated water. The
mining was encouraged by the Papua New Guinea government, which promotes
exports to boost its short-term revenue-even when the exported commodities
diminish the long-term prospects of some of its own endangered peoples.
In New Orleans, the beans were unloaded and roasted
at 400 degrees for 13 minutes. They were packaged in four-layer bags constructed
of polyethylene, nylon, aluminum foil, and polyester. The three layers of
plastics were made of oil shipped by tanker from Saudi Arabia. The tanker
was fueled by still more oil. The plastics were fabricated in factories
in Louisiana's "Cancer Corridor," where toxic industries have
been disproportionately concentrated in areas where the residents are black.
The aluminum layer of the coffee bag was made in the
Pacific North-west, from bauxite strip-mined in Australia and shipped across
the Pacific on a barge fueled by oil from Indonesia. The mining of the bauxite
had violated the ancestral land of aborigines. The refining of the aluminum
was powered by a hydroelectric dam on the Columbia River, construction of
which had destroyed the salmon-fishing subsistence economy of native Americans.
The bags of roasted beans were then trucked to San Francisco.
The gasoline for the trucks was processed from oil extracted from the Gulf
of Mexico. The refining was done at a plant near Philadelphia, where heavy
air and water pollution have been linked to cancer clusters, contaminated
fish, and a decline of marine wildlife throughout the Delaware River basin.
As an environmentalist, Pizarro had conscientiously
avoided the use of a bleached paper filter for his morning coffee. Instead,
he had used a gold-plated filter, which could be used indefinitely. He was
not aware that the gold for the filter had been mined in Russia, where the
production of one-tenth of an ounce of gold had generated one ton of mining
waste. As rain and river water percolated through the waste, the water was
acidified, causing damage to aquatic life and farmland for hundreds of kilometers
Altogether, the production of Paul Pizarro's coffee
required at least four major direct uses of fossil fuels: the diesel-powered
crusher that removed the beans from the fruit in Colombia; the freighter
carrying the beans north; the roaster in New Orleans, which burned natural
gas pumped from the ground in Oklahoma; and the gasoline for the trucks
carrying the coffee and filter-and later for the car Pizzaro used to go
In addition, there were several hundred indirect uses
of fossil fuel energy: for the freighters carrying the iron from Papua New
Guinea and the bauxite from Australia; for the trucks hauling the plastics
to the bag manufacturer and the bags to the packager; for the planes carrying
salesmen and advertising executives representing the packaging materials
and coffee brand. The high-rise offices of the advertising and food company
executives, as well as of the media executives whose magazines and TV shows
carried the coffee advertisements, were inefficiently lit, cooled, and heated
by electricity generated by large amounts of coal and oil.
These two cups of coffee also contributed to the degradation
of forest ecosystems in several regions: the Colombian mountains where natural
forest was replaced with monoculture plantations that lack much of the biological
diversity of the native forest they replaced, the tropical forests of Papua
New Guinea, and the Russian woodlands that were stripped for the mining
Finally, the two cups entailed, altogether, at least
four direct exploitations of indigenous peoples or cultural minorities for
the benefit of the consumer culture: the iron mining in Papua New Guinea,
the bauxite mining in Australia, the plastics manufacturing in Louisiana,
and the aluminum refining in Washington state. These represented the same
kinds of deep inequities that had led, in recent years, to a fanning of
anti-Mexican sentiment throughout California. As a Californian whose grandparents
had immigrated from Mexico, Pizarro had often been uncomfortably conscious
of this sentiment.
But none of this crossed his mind as he sipped his evening
coffee and watched the sun sink below the horizon.
Environments like this one in Costa Rica are perfect for growing
coffee: warm, moist climate, rich soil, abundant water supply and hillsides
for good drainage. Mature plants are in the foreground; newly planted fields
are in the background.
3. Which Story is True?
oth are true.
Coffee is indeed one of the simple pleasures of life,
for people everywhere. It has contributed to innumerable moments of good
conversation and congeniality, and has helped people like Paul Pizarro to
get started in the morning and to stay awake while driving at night.
It is also true, however, that the production of a single
cup of coffee requires the participation of an enormous array of materials,
processes, and industries. The question is not whether the final product
is good or bad, but whether the particular methods used to produce it are
It is possible to continue making coffee in a way that
is-when multiplied by the hundreds of millions of people who enjoy it-very
destructive to the Earth's biological systems and human cultures. But it
may also be possible to produce the same product with far less impact. And
that may be true for almost every product we consume.
NOTE: All of the facts in this account are true for
the production of coffee in general, but it is not possible to trace the
inputs to a particular cup of coffee. The beans could have come from Kenya
instead of Colombia; the gold from Brazil instead of Russia, etc. Thus,
this account is a composite, and Paul Pizarro is a fictional name. However,
all of the places, peoples, and processes mentioned are involved in the
making of coffee as stated. The descriptions of human and environmental
impacts are true.
Alan Thein Durning is a former senior researcher at the Worldwatch
Institute. He now heads Northwest Environment Watch, a regional environmental
policy research group based in Seattle, Washington.