Understanding and making do with a coffee-stained planet

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How do you like your coffee?

No, not how you like to drink it. How do you like your coffee to be grown?

That’s probably not the question you’re used to hearing at your local cafe, but it’s something we should think about, especially for those of us who drink one or more cups of joe per day. More than half of all American adults drink coffee regularly, but the coffee in our morning brew is likely grown thousands of miles away from where we pour it. By diving beneath our mundane, daily habits, we can learn a lot about our coffee-stained world. We reveal that coffee cultivation discolors the planet through deforestation, loss of biodiversity and glaring human rights abuses.


Rainforests, which are the planet’s greatest defense against climate change, are rapidly disappearing, primarily due to land use change for agriculture. Rainforest ecosystems are destroyed largely to make room for the coffee plant. Globally, rainforests act as carbon sinks by absorbing carbon dioxide, but when they are cut down to make way for a coffee plantation, CO2 is released back into the atmosphere. Thus, deforestation is responsible for about 10% of all global warming emissions. It weakens the lungs of Earth and drives climate change forward. 

Each cup of coffee necessitates the destruction of one square inch of rainforest. During my four years of undergradraduate study, if I consume one cup of coffee per day (a vast underestimate for me), I will plow through more than 10 square feet of rainforest!

Decreased biodiversity

Deforestation is synonymous to habitat destruction and declining biodiversity. Some species may find ways to survive following the destruction of their habitats, but inevitably, the fragile ecosystem will crumble. While deforestation might typically be associated with the loss of arboreal animals, soil ecosystems also take a major hit. The practice of slash-and-burn agriculture leaves the soil dry and exposed to heat, which kills off essential bacteria and fungus. The practice of monocropping, or growing a single plant without rotation, further disrupts the pH of the soil. If we view the rainforest ecosystem from the ground up, it’s easy to see how a loss of soil biodiversity can cascade up the food chain. The statistics are alarming: Between 1970 and 2010, the world lost 52% of its biodiversity. Regionally, Latin America has taken the hardest hit, with its biodiversity declining by 83% within the 40-year period.

Human rights abuses

Humans exist within the natural environment, so it is vital to center the experiences of coffee growers who face human rights abuses deep in the Bean Belt — a ribbon of central coffee production wrapped around the equator, weaving through Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia. Laborers on a coffee plantation are often paid below minimum wage while facing exposure to harmful pesticides without proper equipment or training. Migrant workers who are exploited for their labor are often left with no choice but to live in on-farm housing with their families. The housing offered to them is cramped and offers little privacy or security. There are few restrooms, mattresses or blankets. These conditions are surely even more dangerous with the added threat of COVID-19, not to mention that workers are offered no guaranteed sick leave. 

A dark facet of the human rights abuses is the exploitation of child labor. Facing nearly impossible quotas, parents are often left with no choice but to bring their children to work alongside them picking coffee cherries. Children as young as five years old are forced onto the plantations, exacerbating cycles of poverty that plague regions of the Bean Belt.

You’re most likely reading this and contemplating swearing off coffee for the foreseeable future. If you’re wondering how you’re going to get through your 8 a.. Zoom discussions without your morning cup of joe, you’re not alone. Luckily, not all coffee is created equally, and several efforts are being made to grow coffee without harming people or the planet.


Coffee can generally be sorted into two varieties: sun-grown and shade-grown. Unlike sun-grown coffee, shade-grown coffee is cultivated under the shadows of native trees and therefore grows without fully disrupting the natural rainforest habitat. Growers plant a variety of trees amid the coffee crops, artificially constructing a multilevel canopy ecosystem. Ecosystems are left partially intact and biodiversity is actively cultivated, making shade-grown coffee a better alternative to sun-grown coffee. 

Fair trade

Some coffee brands are fair trade certified by meeting social, economic and environmental standards. A fair trade certification generally ensures that a coffee farmer is paid a decent wage, has access to equitable and safe working conditions and has the right to join a union. However, some critics of the nonprofit claim that it is primarily a marketing organization and should not be a permanent solution. With the vast network of coffee growers scattered along the equator, it is easy to see how some shady operations could slip through the cracks.

Finally, you shouldn’t feel guilty about consuming coffee. Large corporations are far more responsible for widespread environmental destruction than an individual consumer ever could be. And on a college budget, it might not be feasible for all of us to spend extra money on a fair trade certified or a shade-grown brew. However, we can learn a lot about the world simply by becoming aware of the consequences behind our consumption.

Sarah Siegel is the deputy blog editor. Contact Sarah Siegel at [email protected].