Updated on April 10, 2019
Coffee is more than a drink. It’s a way of life that supports over 25 million smallholder farmers worldwide. In 2017/2018, there were an estimated 161.4 million 60 kg bags of coffee consumed (source: ICO, 2019), and coffee consumption is increasing approximately 2% globally per year since 2012. At this rate, coffee will continue to grow in influence and importance as a crop in the years to come. But, what do you really know about coffee? Let’s dive into the basics and take a look at the current state of sustainability in the coffee industry.
The coffee belt
The world’s biggest coffee producing countries are Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia, producing 62 million, 29.5 million and 14 million bags of coffee per year, respectively (source: ICO, 2018). Coffee is grown in over 50 countries around the world that lie near the equator, roughly between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. These countries have the warm climates and high levels of humidity needed to grow the coffee plant.
Arabica vs. Robusta
There are two main types of coffee beans cultivated for consumption: arabica and robusta. You may have heard the term ‘arabica’ thrown around at fancy coffee shops. It is generally considered the superior variety of coffee bean. It is grown at elevations of 600-2,200 meters above sea level and at temperatures of 15-30 ºC. This gives it a lower caffeine content, making for a less bitter and, what most people consider, a more pleasant taste. Robusta plants are grown at lower elevations of < 800 meters above sea level and at temperatures of 24-35 ºC. They can contain up to twice as much caffeine as Arabica and the taste of these beans is often described as stronger with a nutty flavor.
From plant to cup
Coffee beans are technically the seeds of the coffee plant, found in the coffee cherry. The cherries are harvested at different times around the world. Coffee plants are mostly grown on slopes. When these slopes are steeps, mechanized harvest becomes impossible. So instead, the cherries are hand-picked. Once picked, they are processed one of two ways; through a washed process or a dry process.
A washed process removes the coffee bean from the husk or pulp using water and a special pulping machine. This requires large amounts of water and it is where water contamination can often occur in coffee production. The dry process method is when coffee cherries are allowed to dry in the sun. Once completely dried, the bean is removed from the cherry in a milling machine.
Founded on coffee
The UTZ certification program started as a coffee program, with the name UTZ Kapeh, meaning ‘good coffee’. The founders, Nick Bocklandt and Ward de Groote, wanted to create a program that recognized responsible farming practices all around the world and allowed people to know the exact origin of their coffee beans. They shared a common goal of making sustainability the norm in coffee production. Today, the UTZ coffee program is still the largest certification program for coffee in the world.
Sustainability concerns in coffee production
We have come a long way in positively impacting the way coffee is produced and sourced, but there are still many sustainability concerns in the coffee industry.
Coffee, like any plant, is dependent on the environment. As climate change becomes a growing concern, coffee production is increasingly being impacted by rises in temperature, increased rainfall, more droughts and other environmental issues.
Also, in wet processing, extensive amounts of water are used to rinse the coffee cherries. The filthy waste water then often flows back into nature, contaminating the surrounding environment and water people use to drink, wash and play in.
Another big concern in coffee production is workers’ rights. Coffee farming is hard work that often involves carrying heavy loads on steep slopes. The industry depends on seasonal workers who travel a long way from home and often stay in poor quality housing. Many workers receive low wages, have limited legal protection and no or limited access to pensions, paid holidays or insurance.
What the UTZ program does
These are issues we are working to change, through certification and beyond. UTZ farmers are trained in good agricultural practices like water recycling and purification. They know how to adapt to climate change and must provide good labor conditions for their workers. At the same time we work in partnership with all players – from farmers to companies, governments and NGOs – to address these widespread issues of the coffee industry, together.
Do you agree that sustainable coffee is the way forward? Join the UTZ program today!