There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.
Sustainability has become part of our industry vocabulary. The term has invaded the turf of business and academia; it spans across multiple disciplines and is becoming an evermore widespread and common theme in society. There is a general consensus that sustainability concerns the interplay of business and society; the environment in which business operates. Further, the term seems to have a rather unique applicability within the coffee industry. The widespread uses of sustainability as a label to investigate, explain, discuss and describe both operations and relationships in the supply chain, the role of business in society, and related issues, show that sustainability is a term - or idea - that encompasses and generates an area of vast interest and discussion.
I just finished a course on Sustainability, and wrote my final project on wastewater treatment at coffee washing stations in Ethiopia. I have since spent a lot of time in Rwanda, working with Effective Microorganisms for wastewater treatment, which is an excellent alternative when there’s no room for creating wetlands. The goal of this article is not to define one single approach to sustainability. Rather, it is an exploration of the theme, using the development of one recent successful method as an example where various parts of the supply chain is involved in developing a sustainable approach, within the context of one country.
I will be using a theoretical platform addressing three themes related to sustainability that are widely discussed in academia. First, I look at population - why sustainability is emerging as key to the future of the coffee industry, while population is still growing rapidly in the developing world (Kent 2004), and being further behind according to the theory of demographic transitions (Tomkin 2013). Then, I take a look at climate change and how this is impacting coffee production, before addressing water, discussing one specific example from Ethiopia, where vetiver grass is being used in wastewater treatment from coffee processing.
Building a body of knowledge
Coffee is both a labour- and resource-intensive crop to grow. Thriving only in the narrow tropical belt around equator, coffee is a crop largely grown by smallholder farmers, playing a crucial role in the livelihoods of millions of rural households across the developing world. The breadth and intimacy of the relationships between coffee producers and intermediary institutions along the coffee supply chain make the sector of critical importance to sustainable development at the local, regional and global levels.
The report “Our Common Future” by the World Commission on Environment and Development, known as the Brundtland commission, stated that “Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Theis and Tomkin 2012, 1). The report is particularly notable for its insistence on the treatment of social, economic and environmental pillars of sustainability. Coffee production and trade face significant challenges along each pillar of sustainable development in ways that highlights their interconnectedness. As noted previously, the recent growth of interest in sustainability is ample within academia, politics and industry. The concept is broad, and invites various interpretations - and even within the Brundtland report itself, there are diverging views on the theme. As Theis and Tomkin (2012, 11) states: “Even within the Brundtland Report a dichotomy exists: alarm over environmental degradation that typically results from economic growth, yet seeing economic growth as the main pathway for alleviating wealth disparities”.
A lack of uniform and agreed upon definition of approach to sustainability in coffee, has limited this article to give only one example of approach that I have seen in East Africa to treat waste water from coffee production. I would encourage others to explore other approaches and examples of sustainable practices within the industry.
Why population matters
Population affects the course of national economic development. For coffee, this means that as the world population approaches 7 billion, population growth affects the direction and potential of our industry. According to what is referred to as the demographic transition (Tomkin 2013), developing countries are likely to enhance their prospects for economic development if their population growth slows. As national populations move toward replacement-level fertility - an average of slightly more than two children per woman (The Economist 2009) - agriculture will continue to be important. The world looks to farmers to do more than just produce food, it is expected to provide people’s route out of poverty.
How exactly does population growth matter to developing economies relying on coffee production? No single answer will do: more than 50% of the world’s coffee is grown b an estimated 30 million smallholder farmers across 45 origin countries (Brits 2013). These countries make up 21 out of 30 of the world’s poorest countries. Population growth has impaired the productivity of renewable resources and their environmental impact - every additional person needs food, water and energy, and produces more waste and pollution. The impact and consumption are worked out by measuring the average per person multiplied by the number of people (Theis and Tomkin 2012). Thus, all environmental and many other problems the earth is facing, are easier to solve with fewer people, and ultimately impossible with ever more, like Malthus stated already in 1798 in “An Essay on the Principle of Population”. Since we passed one billion people on this planet in 1800, our rising numbers and consumption have already caused climate change, as discussed below. Population rises at the same time as the number of people Earth can sustain shrinks - spreading industrialization and western consumption patterns only accelerate this process. The poor should get richer; but high birth rates, together with resource scarcity and environmental degradation actively hinder development. By changing coffee processing practices, we may have one solution to how we can change, before nature does it for us.
It is no news that the earth’s climate is changing. The scientific consensus is that by altering the composition of the atmosphere, humans are increasing the average temperature of the Earth’s surface (Theis and Tomkin 2012). The use of fossil fuels and the conversion of land for forestry and agriculture have increased substantially since the industrial revolution. In addition to the direct environmental impacts, these activities can change the land surface and it’s albedo - the measure of how reflective a surface is, and emit various substances to the atmosphere. These can in turn influence both the amount of incoming energy and the amount of outgoing energy, effecting the climate. It is the rapid change in climate that is worrying: whereas climatic variability has always been the main factor responsible for fluctuating yields for coffee farmers, it is reasonable to assume that climate change as a result of global warming, is expected to result in actual shifts on where and how coffee may be produced in the future. The productivity (green bean yield) of coffee is tightly linked to climatic variability, and is thus strongly influenced by climatic oscillations. For example, the optimum mean annual temperature range for Arabica coffee is 18–21°C, or up to 24°C (Gole et al. 2012). At temperatures above 23°C, development and ripening of fruits is accelerated, often leading to the loss of quality in the cup.
The relationships between climatic parameters and agricultural production is further complicated, because these environmental factors influence the growth and the development of the plants in different ways during the various growth stages of the coffee crop. One of the short-term adaptation strategies include improved farming practices and better post-harvest processing. Treatment of waste water will help reduce the environmental footprint of our industry, as well as directly impact the livelihoods of millions of people relying on rivers and lakes for their only source of water for their households.
Water resources in Ethiopia
The global water crisis is resulting in water shortages for arid and densely populated areas, and also involves water pollution, because to be useful for drinking and irrigation, water must not be polluted beyond certain thresholds (Theis and Tomkin 2012). Similar to many African countries, parts of Ethiopia face water shortages, poor sanitation and a lack of access to clean water sources (Shore 2013). Ethiopia is located in Africa’s Horn where drought and politics are two leading causes of water shortage. More than 83 million people call Ethiopia home, yet almost 60 percent of these people lacks access to safe water - in rural areas that number rises to nearly 70 percent (Shore 2013).
According to World Vision (2013), these people have no choice but to use unclean water from rivers and ponds for drinking, cooking and bathing. When children drink contaminated water, they become sick and many die. In addition to illness, many Ethiopian children, especially girls, face problems with school. Statistically only 45% of kids attend primary school (Shore 2013), the others are put to work collecting water and helping their families earn money.
Another major concern in Ethiopia is how politics affects the water resources. During Colonial times, the Nile River and its side rivers were split up between the nations surrounding it. In today’s Ethiopia, farmers are finding themselves without access to water because of the way the river was divided hundreds of years ago. As the rainy season becomes shorter due to global warming, the fields are becoming more sandy and dry, making it harder for Ethiopian farmers to survive.
Treatment of wastewater in coffee processing
Coffee goes from being a cherry with two seeds - the coffee beans - to green coffee, ready for export, through a number of steps. The first is separating the fruit and the seeds at the wet mill. These mills are commonly designed so that their layout provides rational systems for cleaning and separation, pulping and demucilaging (Wintgens 1998). Despite the outspread of mechanical demucilaging machines, this water-saving machinery is not much help if water is consumed and contaminated as coffee is fed from one machine to another. A key design objective should be to “minimize water consumption, to recycle the water that is used, to ensure the safe disposal of contaminated wastewater and solid byproducts while, above all, preserving coffee quality” (Wintgens 1998: 696).
Conventional wet-processing may consume from 20 to 100m3 of water per ton of green coffee (Wintgens 1998), with the lower end of this range achieved only with recycling. Wastewater is in most cases returned to rivers, streams or lakes, and must be treated beforehand. More commonly, operating in economies without much resources available for this treatment like we see in for example East Africa, waste water has been retained in lagoons, seeped into the ground. Too much decaying organic matter in water is a pollutant because it removes oxygen from water (Theis and Tomkin 2012). Wet processing techniques, which are used for approximately 40 percent of global production (ICO 2001), generate wastewater with a Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) of up to 150 g/l (Enden and Calvert 2002). Such high BOD levels must be lowered to reduce risk of serious contamination.
TechnoServe, an NGO that works with developing business solutions to poverty, is providing wet mill owners in Ethiopia with a smarter method for treating wastewater and protecting their watershed. During the busy harvest season, the wet mills of East Africa are processing coffee from millions of smallholder coffee farmers, requiring vast amounts of water, each mill producing a large volume of wastewater. Despite using lagoons to hold wastewater, problems with leaking or flooding during peak processing times is common. Some of the wastewater will return to the local rivers untreated, impacting the quality and safety of the water for those downstream. With the use of vetiver grass, TechnoServe has helped to implement a low-cost, sustainable approach to water treatment. The vetiver grass’ deep roots suck up the water, slowing down flow and infiltration into the soil. The remaining effluent, if any, is stored in a small pond at the bottom of the wetland to evaporate. The wet mill owners pay for the construction of the wetlands, while TechnoServe advisors provide the technical expertise and support.
Other key partners involved in the project are the Sidama Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union and regional and local government institutions. In designing the system, TechnoServe worked with local agricultural researchers to understand how vetiver has been used elsewhere in the world for treating organic waste, and then adapt it to coffee wet mills in Ethiopia. TechnoServe has helped install more than 40 such wetlands at wet mills throughout East Africa. Chemical tests will be taken during the harvest period to determine the impact of the wetlands on water quality.
The Sidama Zone, one of Ethiopia’s best-known coffee-growing areas, is home to more than 300 wet mills, most of which have not been upgraded to reduce water consumption or treat their waste. For many people in the area, coffee is the sole source of income, providing money for school fees and basic necessities. Better water treatment will not only improve water quality for families who depend on the river, it will promote a more sustainable and competitive coffee industry.
Sustainability in coffee has a wide scope - from coffee prices to education and environmental efforts - the topic is multi-faceted. It is typical for many discussions on sustainability in the coffee sector that economic and market aspects are treated separately from its social and environmental components. I have discussed only one approach to sustainability in this article, using the example of wastewater treatment from coffee production in Ethiopia. Even though traditional coffee farming and processing have relatively low-level environmental impacts, with the changes the world is facing today in regards to population growth and climate changes, it is necessary to take steps towards more sustainable processing methods.
Scientific knowledge of any topic is an evolving and continually changing process, where small pieces of information are gathered over time and are used to build a body of knowledge that helps us to understand a problem or a phenomenon - in this case how to approach sustainability in coffee production, and why it is important. It is clear that the breadth and intimacy of the relationship between the world’s coffee farmers, intermediary institutions along the coffee supply chain and the local societies in coffee growing areas, makes the sector of critical importance to sustainable development at the local, regional and global levels.
List of references:
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Gross, Irwin. 1987 “The need for research in business marketing” Journal of Advertising Research. 27 (3): RC-7-10.
Kent, Mary Mederios. 2004. Population Bulletin: Transitions in world population.[Online]. World population Bureau. Available from <http://www.prb.org/pdf04/transitionsinworldpop.pdf>. [Accessed March 25 2013].
Shore, Rebecca. 2013. Water in Crisis - Ethiopia. [Online.]. The Water Project. Available from <http://thewaterproject.org/water-in-crisis-ethiopia.php>. [Accessed on April 25 2013].
Technoserve. 2013. A Sustainable Water Solution for Coffee Processing in Ethiopia.[Online]. Technoserve. Available from <http://www.technoserve.org/blog/a-sustainablewater-solution-for-coffee-processing-in-ethiopia>. [Accessed March 25 2013].
Theis, Tom and Jonathan Tomkin (ed.). 2012. Sustainability: A Comprehensive Foundation. [Online]. Texas: Connexions. Rice University, Houston. Available from <http://cnx.org/content/col11325/1.38/>. [Accessed April 2 2013].
Tomkin, Jonatahan. 2013. Transitions. [Online]. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Available from <https://class.coursera.org/sustain-002/wiki/view?page=Week2Overview#readings>. [Accessed March 23 2013].
The Economist. 2009. Go forth and Multiply a lot less. [Online]. The Economist. Available from <http://www.economist.com/node/14743589>. [Accessed April 14 2013].
Wintgens, Jean Nicolas (ed.). 2004. Coffee: Growing, Processing, Sustainable Production. A Guidebook for Growers, Processors, Traders, and Researchers. Weinheim: Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co.
El Salvador micro lot samples have arrived! Thanks @49th @mieh1
140 beans are used to make you a double shot of espresso. Enjoy.
this will get you searched at airport security. coffee independence is worth the minor inconvenience while traveling. Nils is heading to El Salvador with @mieh1 / @49thgreen to visit some coffee farms and cup some coffees (read: get a sunburn) (at Winnipeg International Airport (YWG))