By Neil King and Gabriel Borrud
A new report published by the market research company Packaged Facts suggests that 23% of American consumers have eaten plant-based meat products — and an additional 37% are interested in trying them. Is this the future?
Bruce Friedrich is the founder and executive director of the Good Food Institute (GFI), an international non-profit organization based in Washington, DC that strives for alternatives to conventional agriculture products. DW's environment podcast team "On the Green Fence" spoke with Bruce about the future of food as part of a series on meat consumption.
DW: What, in your opinion, is wrong with eating meat?
Industrial animal meat production causes more climate change than all forms of transportation combined. The United Nations looked at it. It said whatever issue we're looking at from an environmental standpoint, industrial meat production is one of the top three causes - species loss, soil, desertification, water pollution. Right now, we're all living through COVID-19, and the UN Environment Program just a couple of months ago asked, "How do we prevent the next COVID-19?" They listed seven things, and the first one was that we need less industrial animal meat production.
Ok, so eating meat is harming the Earth and humanity. But that collective knowledge isn't going to stop us, is it?
Part of the problem is that for 50 years, environmentalists and global health experts and animal activists have been begging the public to eat less meat. And it's just not working. It's been a colossal failure. People are eating more and more meat even in developed economies. The UN is predicting we're going to need to produce 50 to 100% more meat by 2050.
So instead of doing that, let's give people everything that they like about meat. Let's give people meat, but let's make it from plants and grow it directly from cells. And we'll have a fraction of the negative environmental consequences, including a fraction of the impact on the climate. It will free up vast quantities of land for carbon sequestration. It won't require any antibiotics. We should be able to get to a place where it tastes exactly the same and gives people everything that they like about meat, but at a lower cost because of the efficiency gains.
But do you seriously believe that the majority of meat eaters will switch to plant-based products voluntarily?
What is meat? It's made up of lipids, amino acids, minerals and water. That's all it is. That stuff exists in plants. Scientists can solve this problem by bio-mimicking meat from plants. And for people who just want to eat animal meat, we can use standard tissue engineering techniques. We can grow meat directly from cells. It will be a healthier and more efficient product that frees up vast quantities of land. It's really a win-win-win. We need a new space race essentially focused on food. The government that manages to divorce meat production from the need for living animals is going to have bragging rights until the end of time.
McDonald's has announced plans to launch a plant-based line of products in 2021. How important is this development?
McDonald's has more restaurants and more revenue than any other restaurant chain on the planet. They introduced America to the chicken nugget, and we expect that they will be introducing millions more Americans to plant-based meat with their plant line. When they do something, they do it deliberately, and they do it on a massive scale. So this means that they are certain there will be sustained demand, and that an assured supply chain will be in place by the time they launch. This is a massive development for the plant-based meat industry.
So aside from McDonald's diversifying its product range, just how great a role do alternative meat products play in the market right now?
This is still very early days - we are still looking at products that are significantly less than 1% of the volume of meat sales. But animal meat production is pretty much as efficient as it is going to get and that is vastly inefficient. The most efficient animal at turning crops into meat is the chicken. It takes nine calories in the form of crops to get one calorie back out from a chicken. So the physiology of the chicken dictates 800% food waste. As plant-based products scale up, prices will come down and they will just become better and better environmentally when compared to industrial animal meat.
What do you see as the main obstacles to getting these alternative products into the mass market?
The only way to get mainstream acceptance is if the products taste the same or better and cost the same or less. And we are not there yet. The products cost more and often don't give meat eaters everything they're looking for from a taste profile perspective.
What about lab-grown meat? Is this a promising product or a dead end in your eyes?
We are very bullish on cultivating meat directly from cells. If you're going to grow a chicken to slaughter weight and again, chicken is the animal that gets to slaughter weight most quickly, you're going to have to plan years in advance to grow the crops, to feed the chicken. You need an entire flock of breeder animals. And even just the process of growing the chicken is going to take you six to seven weeks before it goes to the abattoir. With cultivated meat production, you can get that same growth in six days, not six weeks. So this is something we're super enthusiastic about at this point.
How do you respond to critics who say that fake meat products are pumped full of unhealthy additives?
That's just absurd. When you look at what makes a product healthy or unhealthy, we know that around 97% of people in Europe and North America are not consuming enough fiber. The most important macronutrients to be consuming are complex carbohydrates and fiber. Animal meat has none of either. Plant-based meat is an excellent source of both. We're supposed to be eating less saturated fat, less or no cholesterol and no trans fats.
Plant-based meat vastly outperforms animal meat across all of these metrics as well. A study done by the Stanford School of Medicine showed that in just eight weeks the plant-based products caused statistically significant improvement in heart disease risk factors. They are clearly much healthier.
So when will these plant-based products actually make the inroads you're hoping for?
On our current trajectory, meat production just goes up and up. 2019 was the highest per capita meat consumption in recorded history. This is planet-on-fire stuff. The former head of the World Health Organization said, we are literally looking at the end of modern medicine due to antibiotic resistance.
So, this is a global health crisis and an environmental crisis. We really need more entrepreneurs and more scientists to focus on this. And governments really need to wake up to the fact that this is deserving of lots of resources. Right now. It's just getting drops, but it needs to get a fire hose.
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
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By Jake Johnson
A new study published Wednesday in the journal Nature warns that if the world's governments fail to meet warming targets set by the Paris climate accord, sea level rise from the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet will accelerate at a "rapid and unstoppable" rate in the coming decades.
Authored by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the new paper finds that if planetary warming continues at its current rate—which is headed toward 3° Celsius above pre-industrial levels—Antarctic melting will reach a tipping point by 2060, beyond which the consequences would be "irreversible on multi-century timescales."
"If the world warms up at a rate dictated by current policies we will see the Antarctic system start to get away from us around 2060," Robert DeConto, the lead author of the study, told The Guardian. "Once you put enough heat into the climate system, you are going to lose those ice shelves, and once that is set in motion you can't reverse it."
"It's really the next few decades that will determine the sea level rise from Antarctica," DeConto added. "These ice shelves won't be able to just grow back."
The researchers find that if the most optimistic Paris goal of no more than 1.5° Celsius of warming by the end of the century is met, the Antarctic ice sheet would contribute around six centimeters of sea level rise by 2100.
"But if the current course toward 3 degrees is maintained, the model points to a major jump in melting," the study warns. "Unless ambitious action to rein in warming begins by 2060, no human intervention, including geoengineering, would be able to stop 17 to 21 centimeters of sea-level rise from Antarctic ice melt alone by 2100."
Under a scenario in which no further action is taken to limit planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, the research paper finds, Antarctic melting would contribute a "globally catastrophic" 10 meters or more to sea level rise by 2300.
"If we did nothing at all to reduce emissions we could get five meters of sea level rise just from Antarctica by 2200, at which point you'd have to remap the world from space," said DeConto. "It would be unimaginable."
The study comes days after U.S. President Joe Biden hosted a climate summit with 40 world leaders to discuss ways to bring the world into line with Paris warming targets. Biden, for his part, pledged to cut U.S. emissions at least 50% below 2005 levels by the end of the decade—a goal climate activists slammed as nowhere near sufficient.
"Science and justice demand that we reduce emissions by 70% from 2005 levels by 2030 on the road to zero emissions by mid-century," Janet Redman of Greenpeace USA said last month. "The White House can get this done by removing government subsidies to fossil fuel companies, investing in an equitable and sustainable economic recovery, and stopping fishy carbon offset deals."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
Though giant sequoias have historically been resilient to wildfire, the Castle Fire was so severe it likely killed more than 1,000 of the trees including many that had stood for more than 1,000 years. Climate change is making droughts more likely to occur, and more severe when they do, and thus makes wildfires more extreme as forests and other fuels sources are turned into proverbial tinder boxes.
"The fact areas are still smoldering and smoking from the 2020 Castle Fire demonstrates how dry the park is," Leif Mathiesen, assistant fire management officer for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, told The Associated Press. California's current severe and extreme drought conditions covering the Sierra Nevada mountains set a dire stage for the upcoming wildfire season.
As reported by The Associated Press:
According to AccuWeather senior meteorologist Dave Samuhel, fires are projected to burn 14,844 square miles (38,445 square kilometers) of land across the Western U.S.
"Unfortunately, in a nutshell, it looks like it's going to be another busy season," he said in a statement. "We're seeing a lot of drought. Almost half of the country is experiencing drought, and the bulk of that is to the West."
For a deeper dive:
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- California National Parks' Archives Are Saved From Wildfires ... ›
- California Wildfires Burn 10,000 Acres in a Single Day - EcoWatch ›
- 11 Surprising Facts About Trees - EcoWatch ›
After almost a decade of no precipitation, 10mm of rain caused an entire desert in South Africa to bloom. Rare species in Richtersveld National Park awoke and flowered for the first time in nine years, only to be stolen for the illegal plant trade, The Guardian reported. Plant poaching is not new, nor is it unique to the area; but, pandemic-inspired houseplant purchases have exacerbated the issue worldwide.
According to Pieter van Wyk, a botanist and nursery curator at Richtersveld, the World Heritage Site is the world's most biodiverse desert. With its unique geology, including the world's oldest mountains, and location creating a perfect ecosystem for many plants to thrive, more than 3,000 plant species exist in a relatively small area, including 400 endemic to the region, The Guardian reported. Many of these are prized succulents that fetch high prices on the black market. Some species are so specialized they only grow in one valley or on one mountain top. There are even cases where an entire species lives in an area smaller than a soccer field, "so a poacher could render a species extinct in a morning," The Guardian noted.
"In regards to rare, more than half of the plants from the region were not rare, but are now becoming rare" due to environmental and human factors, van Wyk told EcoWatch.
Van Wyk adds how demand is high and supply is low, especially for charismatic and endangered species, making the black market quite profitable. South African plants such as those in Richtersveld are sold to distant places by crime syndicates who subcontract the actual theft to desperate locals and even tourists, he said.
"People [here] don't have work... People are desperate for money and food, willing to make quick money," van Wyk explained. Due to increased interest in rare plants, "now syndicates pay several months' worth of salary to locals for plants which, in the end, are being sold in Asia and Europe, as well as America, for values that could sustain a family for years in Namaqualand."
Van Wyk noted that the appeal of the black market continues to grow because ethical and legal nurseries can take five to 15 years to build up enough stock for retail sale, while it can be difficult dealing with export regulations and obtaining permits.
He told The Guardian that plant poaching in South Africa might eclipse the country's lucrative rhino horn industry. The nursery curator fears that many iconic species may go extinct within his lifetime, having already witnessed massive losses within the last five years, The Guardian added. This is mainly due to poaching and habitat loss from farming, mining and the climate crisis, van Wyk told EcoWatch.
The botanist also warned that the global-local crime cycle has caused locals to poach more than what is asked of them. "The quick money-making scheme has gone viral amongst locals who are now removing plants without having buyers, causing large-scale destruction with many plants eventually being thrown away," van Wyk told EcoWatch.
He warned that this biodiversity loss will have a greater impact on general ecology, ecosystem health and climate regulation. "This has a severe impact on humans as well, as [this area] eventually will become uninhabitable, and probably soon," van Wyk said.
Plant poaching itself is not a new crime nor limited to South Africa. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) defines the act as the illegal removal of rare and endangered plants from their natural habitat. Plants are stolen without regard to laws and regulations created for their protection, and theft can occur either on government land or private property.
In a 2020 "buyer beware" warning for Venus flytrap plants, FWS asked collectors to help stem poaching of the popular potted plant. Endemic to North and South Carolina, wild populations of the carnivorous plant are in serious decline. Habitat loss and alteration are the primary threats, but poaching causes enough damage that it was declared a felony in 2014.
Another article by The Guardian highlighted how the quarantine-fueled gardening craze around the world is also spurring plant poaching in the Philippines. Carnivorous pitcher plants and those used to cultivate bonsai became especially popular, and these and other endangered species are being dug up from forests and mountains in record numbers, according to the article.
Iconic saguaro cacti are another wild plant now threatened with extinction due to climate change and poaching. Saguaros grow slowly, taking 50 years to reach three feet tall, A Natural Curiosity reported. The cacti don't typically begin to grow their famous arms until they are at least 70 years old, and can live around 150 years. Coveted amongst collectors, the cacti sell for up to $100 a foot. But saguaro poaching has escalated to the point where individual wild plants are now microchipped to track and deter poaching.
Although not as widely publicized as animal poaching, removing plants from nature has an "equally large effect on the vital balance needed to maintain healthy ecosystems," A Natural Curiosity reported. The article also covered an issue facing small rosette succulents in California. These succulents prevent erosion on rocks and cliffs where few other plants can survive, and removing them for houseplants destabilizes the entire ecosystem base. And that's exactly what is happening due to pandemic plant demand.
As plants such as monsteras, hoyas and succulents gained popularity on social media, poachers have been enlisted to source them no matter the consequence, A Natural Curiosity found.
FWS offered a few tips to rare plant collectors to help avoid buying poached or stolen plants:
- Examine the entire tray. Nursery-propagated or tissue-cultured plants will have uniform sizing. Poached plants are more likely to vary in size.
- Examine the soil. Nursery soil is uniform, often with sterile peat moss. Mixed gravel and sand in soil is a tip-off.
- Look for other species growing in the same pot. Weedy pots are another indication that the plants were taken from the wild.
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What Is Climate Change? Is It Different From Global Warming?
Climate change is actually not a new phenomenon. Scientists have been studying the connection between human activity and the effect on the climate since the 1800s, although it took until the 1950s to find evidence suggesting a link.
Since then, the amount of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases) in the atmosphere have steadily increased, taking a sharp jump in the late 1980s when the summer of 1988 became the warmest on record. (There have been many records broken since then.) But climate change is not a synonym for global warming.
The term global warming entered the lexicon in the 1950s, but didn't become a common buzzword until a few decades later when more people started taking notice of a warming climate. Except climate change encompasses a greater realm than just rising temperatures. Trapped gases also affect sea-level rise, animal habitats, biodiversity and weather patterns. For example, Texas' severe winter storms in February 2021 demonstrate how the climate isn't merely warming.
Why Is Climate Change Important? Why Does It Matter?
Marc Guitard / Moment / Getty Images
Despite efforts from forward thinkers such as SpaceX Founder Elon Musk to colonize Mars, Earth remains our home for the foreseeable future, and the more human activity negatively impacts the climate, the less habitable it will become. It's estimated that Earth has already warmed about one degree Celsius, or two degrees Fahrenheit, since the start of the Industrial Revolution around the 1750s, although climate change tracking didn't start until the late 1800s. That warming number may not sound like much, but this increase has already resulted in more frequent and severe wildfires, hurricanes, floods, droughts and winter storms, to name some examples.
Then there's biodiversity loss, another fallout of climate change that's threatening rainforests and coral reefs and accelerating species extinction. Take rainforests, which act as natural carbon sinks by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But as rampant deforestation is occurring everywhere from Brazil's Amazon to Borneo, fewer trees mean that rainforests are becoming carbon sources, emitting more carbon than they're absorbing. Meanwhile, coral reefs are dying as warming ocean temperatures trigger bleaching events, which cause corals to reject algae, their main food and life source. Fewer trees, coral reefs and other habitats also equate to fewer species. Known as the sixth mass extinction, a 2019 UN report revealed that up to a million plant and animal species could become extinct within decades.
It can be easy to overlook climate change in day-to-day life, or even realize that climate change is behind it. Notice there's yet another romaine lettuce recall due to E. Coli? Research suggests that E. Coli bacteria are becoming more common in our food sources as it adapts to climate change. Can't find your favorite brand of coffee beans anymore? Or that the price has doubled? Climate change is affecting that too. Climate change is also worsening air quality and seasonal allergies, along with polluting tap water. Not least, many preliminary studies have also drawn a line between climate change and the deadly COVID-19 pandemic that is still gripping much of the world. Future pandemics are likely to happen more frequently until the root causes, such as deforestation, are addressed.
Speaking of larger-scale issues, global water scarcity is already happening more frequently. The Caribbean is facing water shortages due to rising temperatures and decreased rainfall; Australia's dams may run dry by 2022 as severe wildfires increase and Cape Town, South Africa has already faced running out of water.
As touched upon earlier, it's one thing to be inconvenienced by a lack of romaine lettuce for a couple of weeks or higher coffee bean prices, but reports warn how climate change will continue to threaten global food security, to the point of triggering a worldwide food crisis if temperatures surpass two degrees Celsius.
Many of these factors are already contributing to climate migration, forcing large numbers of people to relocate to other parts of the world in search of better living conditions.
Unless more immediate, drastic action is taken to combat climate change, future generations will have to contend with worst-case scenario projections by the end of the 21st century, not limited to coastal cities going underwater, including Miami; lethal heat levels from South Asia to Central Africa; and more frequent extreme weather events involving hurricanes, wildfires, tsunamis, droughts, floods, blizzards and more.
What's Happening and Why?
Fiddlers Ferry power station in Warrington, UK. Chris Conway / Moment / Getty Images
The Earth's temperature has largely remained stable until industrial times and the introduction of greenhouse gases. These gases have forced the atmosphere to retain heat, as evidenced by rising global temperatures. As the planet grows warmer, glaciers melt faster, sea levels rise, severe flooding increases and droughts and extreme weather events become more deadly.
The Greenhouse Effect
In the late 1800s, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius studied the connection between the amount of atmospheric carbon and its ability to warm and cool the Earth, and while his initial calculations suggested extreme warming as carbon increased, researchers didn't start to take human-induced climate change seriously until the late 20th century.
But proof of human-led climate change can be traced to the 1850s, and satellites are among the ways that scientists have been tracking increased greenhouse gases and their climate impact in more recent years. Climate researchers have also documented warmer oceans, ocean acidification, shrinking ice sheets, decreased snow amounts and extreme weather as among the events resulting from greenhouse gases heating the planet.
Numerous factors contribute to the production of greenhouse gases, known as the greenhouse effect. One of the biggest causes involve burning fossil fuels, including coal, oil and natural gas, to power everything from cars to daily energy needs (electricity, heat). From 1970-2011, fossil fuels have comprised 78 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.
Big Ag is another greenhouse contributor, particularly beef production, with the industry adding 10 percent in 2019. This is attributed to clearing land for crops and grazing and growing feed, along with methane produced by cows themselves. In the U.S. alone, Americans consumed 27.3 billion pounds of beef in 2019.
Then there's rampant deforestation occurring everywhere from the Amazon to Borneo. A 2021 study from Rainforest Foundation Norway found that two-thirds of the world's rainforests have already been destroyed or degraded. In Brazil, deforestation reached a 12-year-high in 2020 under right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro. As it stands, reports predict that the Amazon rainforest will collapse by 2064. Rainforests are important carbon sinks, meaning the trees capture and remove carbon from the atmosphere. As rainforests collapse, the remaining trees will begin emitting more greenhouse gases than they're absorbing.
Meanwhile, a recent study revealed that abandoned oil and gas wells are leaking more methane than previously believed, with U.S. wells contributing up to 20 percent of annual methane emissions.
Not least is the cement industry. Cement is heavily used throughout the global construction industry, and accounts for around eight percent of carbon dioxide emissions.
Natural Climate Change
Granted, natural climate change exists as well, and can be traced throughout history, from solar radiation triggering the Ice Ages to the asteroid strike that rapidly raised global temperatures and eliminated dinosaurs and many other species in the process. Other sources of natural climate change impacts include volcano eruptions, ocean currents and orbital changes, but these sources generally have smaller and shorter-term environmental impacts.
How We Can Combat Climate Change
Participant holding a sign at the climate march on Sept. 20, 2020, in Manhattan. A coalition of climate, Indigenous and racial justice groups gathered at Columbus Circle to kick off Climate Week with the Climate Justice Through Racial Justice march. Erik McGregor / LightRocket / Getty Images
While the latest studies and numbers can often feel discouraging about society's ability to prevent the worst-case climate scenarios from happening, there's still time to take action.
As a Society
In 2015 at COP 21 in Paris, 197 countries came together to sign the Paris Agreement, an international climate change treaty agreeing to limit global warming in this century to two degrees Celsius, and ideally 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels; it's believed that the planet has warmed one degree Celsius since 1750. Studies show that staying within the two-degree range will prevent the worst-case climate scenarios from happening. Achieving this goal requires participating parties to drastically slash greenhouse gas emissions sooner rather than later. However, there have already been numerous setbacks since then, from former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrawing from the Paris Agreement in 2020 to world leaders, such as China, the world's biggest polluter, failing to enact aggressive climate action plans. Yet many of the treaty participants have been slow to implement changes, putting the world on track to hit 3.2 degrees Celsius by the end of the 21st century even if the initial goals are met. However, it's worth noting that U.S. President Joe Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement in 2021, and pledged to cut greenhouse gases in half by 2030.
Then there's the Montreal Protocol, a 1987 global agreement to phase out ozone-depleting substances such as chlorofluorocarbons, chemicals that were commonly used in air-conditioning, refrigeration and aerosols. Recent studies show that parts of the ozone are recovering, proving that a unified commitment to combatting climate change issues does make a difference.
On a smaller scale, carbon offset initiatives allow companies and individuals to invest in environmental programs that offset the amount of carbon that's produced through work or lifestyle. For example, major companies (and carbon emitters) such as United Airlines and Shell have pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions in part by participating in carbon offset programs that remove carbon from the atmosphere. The problem is that these companies are still producing high levels of fossil fuel emissions.
While individuals can make a small impact through carbon offsets, the greater responsibility lies with carbon-emitting corporations to find and implement greener energy alternatives. This translates to car companies producing electric instead of gas vehicles or airlines exploring alternative fuel sources. It also requires major companies to rely more on solar and wind energy for their energy needs.
In Our Own Lives
While it's up to corporations to do the heavy lifting of carbon reduction, that doesn't mean individuals can't make a difference. Adopting a vegan lifestyle, using public transportation, switching to an electric car and becoming a more conscious consumer are all ways to help combat climate change.
Consuming meat relies on clearing land for crops and animals, while raising and killing livestock contributes to about 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization. By comparison, choosing a plant-based diet could reduce greenhouse gas footprints by as much as 70 percent, especially when choosing local produce and products.
Riding public trains, subways, buses, trams, ferries and other types of public transportation is another easy way to lower your carbon footprint, considering that gas-powered vehicles contribute 95 percent of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions.
Electric cars and trucks have come down in price as more manufacturers enter the field, and these produce far lower emissions than their gas counterparts. Hybrid vehicles are another good alternative for lowering individual emission contributions.
Buying locally produced food and items is another way to maintain a lower carbon footprint, as the products aren't shipped or driven long distances. Supporting small companies that are committed to sustainability is another option, especially when it comes to clothes. Fast fashion has become a popular option thanks to its price point, but often comes at the expense of the environment and can involve unethical overseas labor practices. Not least, plastic saturates every corner of the consumer market, but it's possible to find non-plastic alternatives with a little research, from reusable produce bags to baby bottles.
Those interested in becoming even more involved can join local climate action organizations. Popular groups include the Sunrise Movement, Fridays for Future, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, to name a few. Voting, volunteering, calling local representatives and participating in climate marches are additional ways to raise your voice.
It's taken centuries to reach a climate tipping point, with just a matter of decades left to prevent the worst-case climate scenarios from happening. But there's still hope of controlling a warming climate as long as individuals, companies and nations make an immediate concerted effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions. As the world already experienced with the COVID-19 pandemic, a rapid unified response can make all the difference.
Meredith Rosenberg is a senior editor at EcoWatch. She holds a Master's from the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism in NYC and a B.A. from Temple University in Philadelphia.
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Coffee has enormous cultural significance. It's a staple of culture, cuisine, and everyday life for people all over the planet. Americans alone consume 400 million cups of coffee per day, and the crop is a highly traded commodity of huge importance to global economies.
These millions of cups aren't without consequence, however. The growing, processing, and transportation of coffee – everything that happens before it's poured into our mugs – have large-scale environmental and social repercussions.
Grown in tropical regions around the equator – called the "Bean Belt" – coffee beans travel far before ending up in our cabinets. Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, and Ethiopia are the top producers of coffee – so, for those living in the continental United States, "local" coffee isn't an option, and its impact will always be substantial.
Increased demand and the undercutting of smallholders in coffee production have led to more destructive growing practices, including monocropping and replacing shade-grown coffee with sun-grown. Extreme exploitation of labor is also tied to coffee production, and farmers typically earn only between 7-10% of the retail price of their product – and less than 2% in Brazil – according to the Food Empowerment Project.
Beyond its production, the way we choose to prepare and consume coffee can also create avoidable waste: from filters to mugs, to spent coffee grounds. Luckily, there are ways to choose and consume your coffee more consciously, from choosing the product to how it's prepared.
Here are a few tips for a more sustainable and responsible coffee routine if you can't kick the habit.
1. Choose Consciously
Doi Chaang coffee on display for sale inside a coffee shop in Chiang Rai. Artur Widak / NurPhoto / Getty Images
When perusing the coffee aisle, look at the packaging for legitimate labels and third-party certifications. Real certifications will let you know that the coffee's production processes followed specific environmental and/or humanitarian regulations.
Be very wary of greenwashing as well: many companies will stamp illegitimate certifications on their packaging – like "100% All Natural," or "Certified Sustainable" – which don't represent any real standards and mislead consumers, giving the appearance of sustainability and responsibility without any basis.
The "local" label is another one to avoid; no coffee is "local" if you live in the continental U.S., regardless of what the packaging might tell you (locally roasted, maybe, but not grown).
There are a few legitimate certifications that consumers can look for when purchasing coffee:
Shade-grown coffee employs natural processes in coffee-growing, as overhead trees drop leaves and bark that suppress weeds and deliver nutrients to the soil, while also providing a habitat for wildlife and preventing soil erosion. Because of its higher yield, sun-grown coffee – that is, coffee grown in wide-open spaces – became popularized in the 1970s, but has reduced biodiversity and necessitated greater use of pesticides and fertilizers by farmers. Deforestation is already linked to coffee production and has only accelerated with the rise of sun-grown coffee and increasing global demand.
Many of the following certifications mandate that a certain percentage of coffee produced by a farm is shade-grown.
Rainforest Alliance Certified
Rainforest Alliance Certified Coffee includes environmental, social, and economic criteria. Growers certified under this label must follow a list of standards set by the Sustainable Agricultural Network, which addresses deforestation, bans the alteration of waterways and dumping of wastewater, restricts the use of pesticides, and requires farms to pay workers at least the federal minimum wage. The Rainforest Alliance certification is being upgraded this summer to address more issue areas and employ newer technologies to verify compliance on farms.
The seal has faced criticism, however, for requiring only 30% of the coffee in a package to have followed these standards, and for not including a fixed price for growers or a provision for organic cultivation.
Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center Bird Friendly Coffee
The requirements for Bird Friendly Coffee are often considered more stringent than those of the Rainforest Alliance, mandating coffee be 100% organic and 100% shade-grown. The seal aims to protect the habitats of migratory birds and requires that a farm be certified organic, maintain a healthy soil base, and employ zero use of pesticides.
The checklist requires, among other qualifications, at least 40% of a coffee farm to be covered in shade and grow 10 different tree species at a minimum to discourage monocropping.
Fair Trade Certified
Fair trade standards primarily focus on supporting farmers and workers. The major labels indicating that a product is fair trade certified are Fair Trade USA and Fairtrade America – the U.S. member of Fairtrade International. Both protect farmers against price fluctuations by setting a price floor that requires a minimum price per pound of coffee, plus additional funds for community development.
These labels have their own complications, as there are many other political and economic complications for farmers, including debts from previous price fluctuations; but, they are a step in the right direction.
The word "fair trade" is also ripe for greenwashing, stamped onto packages with no standards behind it. Be sure to verify whether a product is actually fair trade certified by one of these organizations when purchasing coffee.
USDA OrganicLike other certified-organic products, this label verifies that a farm has followed strict environmental standards, which prohibit synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Products labeled "100% organic" follow these guidelines completely, "organic" products must contain at least 95% organically-produced material, and anything indicating it was "made with organic ingredients" must contain at least 70%.
2. Replace Disposable With Reusable
Hiraman / E+ / Getty Images
Given all of the complex, energy-intensive processes that go into producing coffee, the environmental footprint of your morning cup goes far beyond plastic waste – but, with 64% of Americans drinking at least one cup a day, that resulting waste is nothing to scoff at.
When brewing coffee at home or grabbing one on-the-go, consider replacing the following:
Coffee filters are like any disposable product: they require energy and resources to produce and then end up in landfills when disposed of. Many of these filters are also chemically bleached with oxygen or chlorine, which has further environmental consequences.
Compostable filters are a partial solution, as they do reduce the overall volume of waste, but still must be created and transported before ending up in your coffee machine.
Luckily, many reusable alternatives can easily replace a disposable filter in traditional coffee machines or pour-over appliances: often made of plastic, metal, or a washable fabric (usually linen or cotton), they should be emptied and rinsed between each use.
Twenty-five percent of Americans have reported using single-cup coffee brewers, although it's no secret that single-use coffee capsules are an incredible source of waste, given that many aren't designed to be recycled or composted. If every K-cup thrown into landfills were lined up, it would wrap around the globe more than ten times.
If you can't quit the coffee-capsule method, stainless steel capsules can be purchased for most single-serve coffee machines. Some compostable capsules have been developed, but, like coffee filters, these too had to be produced and transported, expanding their environmental impact far beyond that of a reusable alternative.
What about coffee on-the-go?
Fifty-eight billion paper cups are thrown away every year in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and their inner polyethylene coating is expensive to recycle, so most of those 58 billion are sent directly to landfills.
A durable, reusable mug for to-go coffee can cut out this waste – around 23 pounds of trash each year, for a daily coffee drinker – and last for years, or even decades. Collapsible coffee mugs can be easily stored in a bag for when you're in a pinch.
Buy in Bulk
Skip the single-use packaging if you can. Many grocery stores will sell coffee beans in bulk, poured into your own reusable bag, and paid for by weight.
3. Consider Your Vessel
Besides choosing reusable alternatives to single-use items, you can also brew your coffee by methods that inherently require less energy.
Think of the energy used by a typical drip-coffee machine: the hotplate left on for hours, the digital display, and the phantom energy sucked up whenever it's plugged in. Appliances like these are usually cheaply made, and planned obsolescence will guarantee the need to purchase a newer model within a few years. Large coffee pots also produce much more than a single cup, often leading to wasted coffee down the drain.
Manual brewing methods require far less energy, such as French presses and Moka pots, which skip the disposable filters and require only the energy needed to boil the water. Pour-over coffee carafes can produce enough for multiple people and are very compatible with a linen coffee filter.
For those with an affinity for iced coffee, cold brew is perhaps the least energy-intensive of all, with time being the main component.
4. Don't Waste It
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The average mature coffee tree will produce only about two pounds of beans per year – so, given the environmental and social impacts of its production along with that low yield, it's important to make sure that no coffee is poured down the drain.
When you find yourself with leftover brew, save it in the fridge for tomorrow's iced coffee, or freeze it in an ice cube tray to add to cold brew or smoothies.
5. Compost the Grounds
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Coffee grounds are rich in nitrogen and can be given a second life through composting. Some gardeners even sprinkle spent coffee grounds around their plants to repel slugs and snails without the use of insecticides.
Explore options for composting at home or in your neighborhood, and keep those nutrient-rich grounds out of landfills.
While making our morning coffee might seem as simple as pulling the grounds out of the cabinet and boiling the water, we should be aware of the complex processes that brought these beans to our kitchens, especially as climate change begins to impact our coffee consumption.
Some argue that the only truly responsible action would be cutting coffee out of our lives altogether – but, incorporating more realistic methods by which to reduce the impact of our morning cup will help ensure that both the environment and workers are being protected.
Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor's degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC.
Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.
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