- Coffee is a globally traded agri-commodity that is also a major driver of deforestation, mass extinction, child labor, slavery, and other abuses.
- The FOREST Act just introduced in the U.S. Senate would regulate palm oil, cocoa, rubber, cattle, and soy – but not coffee. Also this month, the U.K. announced details of its long-awaited deforestation legislation, but it doesn’t cover coffee, either.
- It’s time for regulators in these top coffee consuming countries to wake up, recognize the urgency, and regulate coffee, a new op-ed argues.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.
Coffee. Nectar of the gods. Lifesaving energy booster that helps many of us start our days. Ubiquitously consumed around the world by people like me – without my beloved morning brew I am something of a discombobulatedgrumpyhedgehog.
And yet, this top, globally traded agri-commodity is also a major driver of deforestation, mass extinction, child labor, slavery, and other abuses. Few consumers realize that only 10% to 1% of coffee’s retail price ends up in the coffee farmers’ hands, most of whom do not earn a living wage, and are subsisting in grinding poverty. (Sorry for this downer, please don’t read any further till you’ve had a good strong cup to brace for the rest!)
Coffee is thought to be one of the top seven commodities driving deforestation worldwide – not as bad as cattle, but right up there with cocoa, rubber, and wood fiber; sometimes even nipping at the heels of the notorious palm oil industry. Coffee replaced about 1.9 million hectares of forest from 2001 to 2015. Coffee doesn’t just kill forests though. Pesticide-soaked monoculture coffee is a significant contributor to the mass extinction we are in, especially the insect apocalypse.
Bizarrely, almost no NGOs work to document abuses in the coffee industry, but thanks to some fearless journalists, we know quite a bit about abuses in coffee supply chains from Mexico to Vietnam, Guatemala to Ethiopia, Brazil to Cote d’Ivoire, Honduras to Indonesia. Despite valiant efforts by some pioneering investigators though, not much is said however about horrific conditions in the coffee industry, compared to palm oil, cattle, or even cocoa.
So, to sum things up, we know the coffee industry is rife with abuses, which get short shrift in public discourse. But how big of a problem is this, really? The answer: it is a BIG problem. With circa 500 billion cups of coffee consumed annually, the global coffee market size was valued at $127 billion in 2022. When coffee production is harmful, it affects a large portion of our global population, because coffee is produced by 25 million smallholders and it’s thought 125 million people worldwide depend on coffee for their livelihoods.
My next real question is: who will fix the problem? The bitter answer is that lawmakers in the USA and UK have turned their backs on any responsibility to step in and regulate.
The proposed FOREST Act in the U.S. which was just introduced two weeks ago in the Senate would do a beautiful job regulating palm oil, cocoa, rubber, cattle, and soy – but not coffee. America is also not alone in turning its back on the coffee industry’s dark crimes. Also this month, the U.K. finally announced details of its long-awaited deforestation legislation, but you guessed it: the regulation doesn’t cover coffee, either.
On the bright side, European lawmakers stepped courageously up to the plate with their beautiful new law called the European Deforestation Regulation. This EUDR targets coffee alongside cattle, cocoa, palm oil, rubber, soy and wood. Unfortunately, though, the EU only consumes around 30% of global coffee. If 70% of the global market experiences little or no accountability, there’s not much hope for system reform.
The inescapable conclusion is that if other coffee consuming countries – or coffee producer countries – don’t step up to regulate, the industry will continue to enslave and abuse its workers and kill forests.
It’s time for regulators around the world to wake up, recognize the urgency, and do the right thing: regulate coffee.
Etelle Higonnet previously served as Senior Advisor at the National Wildlife Federation with a focus on curbing deforestation in high-risk commodities; and before that as campaign director at Mighty Earth, where she focused on advocacy for zero deforestation in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa, with an emphasis on cocoa, palm oil, rubber, cattle, and soy industries.
Banner image: A coffee cup with beans. Photo by Lotus Head via Wikimedia Commons.
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