Coffee is more than a drink. It’s a way of life that supports over 25 million farmers worldwide. In 2016/2017, there were an estimated 155.1 million 60 kg bags of coffee consumed (source: ICO), and coffee consumption is increasing approximately 2% globally per year since 2011. 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 51 million, 29.5 million and 14 million bags of coffee per year, respectively (source: ICO, 2017). Coffee is grown in about 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.

Coffee growing area: the coffee belt

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.

Washed process of coffee cherries in Vietnam

Washed process of coffee cherries in Vietnam

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.

Coffee dry process in Kenya

Coffee drying process in Kenya

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

UTZ started as a coffee program, with the name UTZ Kapeh, meaning ‘good coffee’. Our 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, UTZ is 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.

Climate Change

Outlook coffee plantation Brazil

Brazilian coffee plantation

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.

Water management

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.

Coffee harvest in India

Coffee harvest in India

Social issues

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.

UTZ Farmer Field School for coffee farmers in Uganda

UTZ Farmer Field School for coffee farmers in Uganda

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 our program today!