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Coffee and Environment

 Very little crops receive so much attention in respect to its relation with the environment as does coffee. Coffee is produced in tropical and subtropical areas, and is considered a "North" - "South" product. From the point of view of its consumption and production, is associated with frequent consumption occasions and with social interaction, which makes it a product that generates interest and a motive of conversation in many areas.

It is because of these reasons that the effect of the production of coffee on the biodiversity is a topic that in the last decade has received an enormous attention from the scientific community (hundreds of scientific articles on the subject have been produced), from the point of view of the conservation (it is a mandatory subject at international symposiums) and from the point of view of the environmental footprint that is generated by its industry (including the production, processing and distribution processes) at global level.

It could thus be said that the members of the industry linked to coffee production are leading changes in the search of systems of agricultural production that are environmentally sustainable and friendly with biodiversity. Because the consumers and NGOs are continuously demanding improvement, higher standards of environmental sustainability in the ambit of the production have developed compared to other crops. Thus coffee is one of the products were there are more efforts to adapt its production technologies to reduce its environmental impact. On the other hand, the activities of the coffee industry related with its processing, roasting and distribution have also started to evaluate its own impact in the environment.

It is convenient to highlight that to do valid analysis about the problematic of coffee production and its impact in the environment it is necessary to take into account the great diversity of countries producing coffee and of the different regions within those countries. The environmental challenges and effects of producing coffee in the North of Brazil, in the South of Mexico, in Ivory Coast or in Vietnam are very different; this is why it is very difficult to do generalizations. In these areas, the quality of the soils could be very variable, as well as the availability of water for the plantations. This is how in Vietnam, for example, it is necessary to apply fertilizers to the coffee plantations in a much higher proportion than in other countries were coffee is sowed in soils of volcanic origin. Also, in the zones of the North of Brazil it is frequent to observe how, given the reduced availability of water, producers have to extract it from the subsoil to water their plantations, which evidently contrasts with the very high levels of precipitation observed in the regions producing coffee in the tropical Andes.

Another important element associated with the environmental supply is the average solar radiation in different places, sometimes measured as direct sun exposure during the year. Regions with a higher number of sunny days during the year could require, for some species of Arabica coffee, the need of a cultivation system under the protecting shadow of other vegetal species, whilst those with a high number of days during the year of cloud protection are generally more humid, and additional shadow would increment the humidity indexes. To the extent that the indexes of relative humidity are clearly correlated with the presence of fungi and other type of diseases, the decisions on what type of system of production are frequently determined by these types of analysis. This is why the particular ecosystems of certain zones and regions generate incentives or impose limitations for the production of coffee at full solar exposure or of shade grown coffee using other species. This is why it is difficult to do generalizations on the economic viability of imposing production systems in different regions according to different standards.

The subject of coffee and its impact in the conservation of the soils is also an important element to be considered in coffee plantations. In the zones of the world were they produce high mountain coffee, in heights that could reach up to 2000 meters over sea level, the crop is usually cultivated in slopes that could be very inclined and very vulnerable to erosion. The capacity of maintaining the soils with appropriate cultivation techniques becomes in one of those essential conditions to assure the sustainability of the cultivation and the productive environment.

As in all modern cultivations, the maintenance of the water and of the biodiversity are the important variables around the topic of the coffee and the environment. The development of programs of reforestation or conservation of water sources for the post harvest processes is a priority to which the cultivation of coffee is promoting. Also, and to the extent that the coffee cultivations are developed in tropical zones, the commercial cultivation of the bean is carried out in zones were a very high number of vegetal and animal species originate. In those paradises of biodiversity the challenge is that the coffee farms will not affect the habitat of those species and that the producers develop practices that will favor their conservation.

It is worth to mention that it is impossible to separate the environmental impact of coffee cultivation from its social impact. One of the worst alternatives, from the point of view of the conservation of soils, water sources and biodiversity, would be to force changes in the coffee production practices that would reduce the crops profitability and which will generate incentives to cultivate less environmentally friendly alternatives. The small producers of especially vulnerable regions are frequently pressured to consider cattle raising or to substitute coffee for other crops, whose impact could be much more negative for the environment as they do not have sophisticated environmental standards. In this scenario, a coffee plantation without an environmental certification is a better alternative for the environment. To generate gradual and positive changes in the ways of production of coffee it is thus crucial that the concept of environmental sustainability consider and values the environmental supply of different regions, and evaluate coffees contribution to the environment taking into account economic alternatives of land use. Thus, the environmental sustainability concept needs to recognize the contribution to the conservation that coffee growers provide in the price of their product, and generate the necessary incentives to reach the economic sustainability of the plantations.  

Another of the subjects to be taken into account in the relation between the coffee and the environment is the environmental impact of the processes of industrialization and distribution of the final product. Unfortunately this is one of the subjects that has been less explored in the literature. Only recently there have been initiatives to measure the carbon footprint of the industrial processes, with different methodologies. The coffee industry will surely demonstrate its leadership on these issues when it socializes a methodology that will measurethe carbon footprint of all the processes of its life cycle, including those related with the cultivation and the work done at farm level.

It is clear that the scientific analysis and knowledge elaborated on coffee production and its effect in the environment, in different regions, is one of the priority activities to be developed to prevent inconvenient generalizations. These lines of research are considered a great opportunity to know in detail different ecosystems, their particular environmental supply and to optimize the interaction between coffee and specific growing environments. Colombia's programs of Sustainability That Matters that deal with environmental issues, focus precisely on the development of a detailed scientific knowledge on the impact of coffee production in each of the regions in the land of coffee.

This scientific research to understand the different phenomena associated with coffee and its environment will surely acquire more importance and recognition at global level. Hopefully more detailed knowledge will improve the standards according to each environment and confer a higher price for grower's efforts and at, the same time, influence the patterns of consumption and the way to produce coffee and other products in the world. In this way one avoids getting into scenarios were certification programs designed for one a place are applied to another production zone. Also, it highlights to the consumer where the coffee comes from and the importance of its origin, which sustainsprograms of Origin Guarantee.

In short, one can conclude that the relation of coffee with the environment so complex that it should be taken into account not only what happens at farm level but at the transportation, industrial and distribution processes. Also, it is necessary to understand the analysis of all elements associated between the environment and the economic viability of the farm to anticipate effects that would actually lead to worst scenarios of environmental conservation, such as coffee crops substitution for others economic activities that could have terrible effects on the conservation of the ecosystems of hundreds of regions in the world.

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