Still Drinking a Cup of Joy

Coffee - a cup of joy

How often does science news make you feel guilty of environmental harm?  The list of ways we contribute to greenhouse gases that are warming the planet is endless. Carbon-dioxide is the cost of being alive and a consumer, produced from birth until cremation and now exceeding the ability of plants and the oceans to buffer the atmosphere. The news can turn us green to blue, looking for something we love that is innocuous.

What is more innocent than the cup of coffee that gives cheer and brings us together? But that’s on the list, too—starting where the beans are grown (often in land cleared of tropical forest) all the way to my hand and beyond, until the plastic lid is tipped into a landfill or floats to the ocean.

Wait a minute. How much consumption can we surrender for the sake of posterity? We fall into the trap of an overwhelming list that because we can’t do everything we do nothing. It is a dilemma for people who care about human ecology and biodiversity. I think the answer is to do something I can manage because if everyone did a bit the additive impact would make a significant difference. For one person it might be more vegetarian, for another drive/ fly less and others buy consumer products more carefully. We can’t wait for politicians to stop dragging feet, generally old feet habituated to their ways. Even companies are getting into the act, wanting to flaunt greenness to discerning customers.  

That brings me back to coffee where there’s something in a cup to lift spirits.

As forests are cleared and fragmented in Columbia the habitat of jaguars and other charismatic wildlife is depleted. But in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta of Columbia some poor farmers have signed up to a program for shade-grown coffee with the Jaguar Friendly label that sells at a premium price. To be certified, they protect high quality forest equal in area to the crop they cultivate.

Coffee produces as much waste as the crop itself, dumping 10 m tons of biomass every year. In an experimental trial in Costa Rica the waste was spread on deforested land where it had a regenerative effect, creating 80% canopy from young trees in two years, four-fold taller than in a control area where there was only 20% cover of the (mostly non-native) grasses. As coffee gives us a buzz, its pulp helps forests to grow faster.

At the other end of the chain, Starbucks sells 4 bn cups per year. Customers at branches in Seattle are now being offered reusable cups (remember them?). This is a challenge when customers want a cup on the go, but let’s wish the ‘borrow’ program success and no guilty feelings to spoil our cup of joy.

By Roger Gosden

A British and American scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology whose career spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. He married Lucinda Veeck, the embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. They retired to Virginia, where he became a master naturalist and writer affiliated with William & Mary.

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