Bitter Brew: The Stirring Reality of Coffee

There are two main varieties of coffee: arabica and robusta. The former (which is considered better quality) comes mostly from Latin America, Ethiopia, and Kenya; the latter, from Brazil, Vietnam, and Uganda.[1] In the United States, the largest consumer of coffee worldwide, what was once an exotic luxury is now so entrenched in the culture as to be considered a staple.[2] Unfortunately, coffee is tied to a long history of colonialism and slavery,[3] and production of the crop remains a hotbed of exploitation and environmental degradation to this day.

Child Labor

Child labor is widespread in coffee cultivation. When the price of coffee rises, the incentive for struggling families to withdraw their children from school and send them to work increases; at the same time, a fall in coffee prices increases poverty in regions that depend on the crop, which can also prevent children from attending school. Since higher levels of education are tied to higher income over the long term, and children from poor families are those most likely to be sent to work rather than school, child labor maintains a cycle of poverty over generations, which is why it is important for the children to go to school and for the farmers to be paid a living wage so that the amount of money they make is not based on the price of a commodity.

A study in Brazil found that child labor rates were approximately 37% higher – and school enrollment 3% lower – than average in regions where coffee is produced.[4] Children often work eight to 10 hours a day and are exposed to the many health and safety hazards of coffee harvesting and processing, from dangerous levels of sun exposure to injuries to poisoning from contact with agrochemicals.[5]

During the coffee harvesting season in Honduras, up to 40% of the workers are children[5] Children – and women – are hired as temporary workers and are therefore paid even less than adult male workers would be paid.[5] In Kenya, for instance, these “casual” workers often only make about $12.00 a month.[3] Even though there are family farms where children might participate in light labor for part of the day, regulations against child labor do exist in coffee-producing countries, but economic pressures make authorities in these regions reluctant to enforce the law.[3]


Many coffee workers are effectively enslaved through debt peonage – forced labor to repay debts. Landed elite in coffee-producing regions own large plantations where a permanent workforce is employed.[1] On these plantations, the only source for essential goods is often the estate shop run by the landowners, since workers are prevented from shopping elsewhere by their long hours of work, lack of transportation, or constraints on travelling out of the estate.[6] Since they earn less than minimum wage and must pay inflated prices at the estate shop, workers wind up with little or nothing to show for their long hours of hard physical labor – worse, they can become indebted to the plantation and are thus forced to work as payment on their debts. It is not unusual for families who are part of the permanent labor force on a plantation to work and live there for generations, sometimes being pushed into debt by the cost of renting land or interest on loans for emergency healthcare.[7] Forced labor aside, the conditions of work in coffee production are unjust and often illegal.

A study of workers in Guatemala found that the vast majority did not receive overtime pay or the employee benefits required by law, and nearly half were paid less than the minimum wage in that country.[7] Focus groups conducted as part of the same study revealed instances of discrimination against women, unsanitary living environments, child labor, and a lack of both legally-required health and safety initiatives and access to education.[7]

Nonhuman Animals Exploited

One recent development of concern in the coffee trade is the practice of feeding coffee beans to animals and then using the excreted beans for consumption. Kopi luwak, for example, is a type of Indonesian coffee produced by feeding coffee beans to the Asian palm civet, a small mammal found in the jungles of Asia. Coffee producers claim the civet’s digestion process improves the beans’ flavor. The popularity of so-called “civet coffee” has led to intensive farming of the animals, who are confined in cages and force-fed the beans.[17]

A similar process is used in the nascent practice of feeding coffee beans to elephants, though sadly it’s being carried out in a sanctuary in Thailand, where about 20 elephants consume beans from nearby plantations. Branded as Black Ivory Coffee, this expensive brew (it’s about US$50 per serving) doesn’t yet have the popularity of civet coffee – and producers argue the animals are in no way harmed – but it points to a disturbing trend in animal exploitation.[18]

Environmental Impact

In a natural setting, the coffee plant grows in the understory of tropical and subtropical forests.[3] In agriculture, coffee can be grown under the shade of trees or in the sun of an open field. Shade-grown coffee cultivation is beneficial for the environment in many ways, preventing soil erosion and providing a haven for species native to the often ecologically fragile and extremely biodiverse regions where coffee is grown.[8] The plants used for shade can be a source of additional income for farmers.[9] Moreover, by preventing soil erosion, shade-grown coffee decreases the amount of run-off from agricultural chemicals and reduces water consumption. The product is often considered to be of higher quality, but many coffee-roasting companies have devised ways to hide the bitterness of cheaper beans, increasing demand for inexpensive coffee. Since the yields (and therefore profits) are lower in higher-intensity forms of coffee cultivation, shade-grown coffee operations are increasingly being replaced by sun-grown ones – in some cases, coffee is abandoned altogether in favor of environmentally destructive agriculture, including razing forests into pastureland for cows[1] to feed the worldwide demand for cheap “meat.”

Shade Grown Coffee - Photo Courtesy of Equal ExchangeBecause sun-grown coffee production depletes the nutrients in the soil, plantations that use this method of cultivation generally only last for about 15 years, before farmers need to re-plan this perennial crop.[9] Productivity decreases along with soil quality, so after a short span of time it becomes more economically advisable to abandon the plantation and clear a new area of land – an environmentally catastrophic model. In contrast, shade-grown coffee plantations can remain productive for more than three decades.[9] Sadly, large-scale, “technified” coffee production has completely stripped the soil of nutrients in many areas of Brazil, to the point where these lands can no longer be used for agriculture.[10] Sun-grown coffee also requires more chemical fertilizers, agricultural chemicals, and fungicides, making coffee the third most heavily sprayed crop in the world.[9]

Given the levels of poverty in the areas where coffee is grown, workers are often unable to afford protective equipment that would limit their exposure; in other cases, they simply choose not to use it, or are not aware that it is necessary.

In the production of coffee, the skin and pulp of the coffee cherry is removed and discarded. Though the waste makes excellent compost, it is more often unloaded in waterways, where it has a negative effect on water quality.[11] There are two methods for the primary processing of coffee beans: dry and wet. Dry processing is preferable from an environmental perspective – the coffee cherries are simply sorted and left to dry in the sun.[12] Wet processing, on the other hand, involves high water use and generates wastewater. The latter is the favored method for arabica coffee beans, which make up about 85% of global consumption.[12]

Labels on Coffee – Do They Mean What They Say?

There are a number of certifications applied to coffee that purport to ensure that the beans were produced ethically. Organic-certified coffee must be made from beans grown without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Organic agriculture also forbids the use of genetically modified organisms, and farmers use organic fertilizers and safer alternatives to fungicides and agricultural chemicals.[13] Unfortunately, lower-intensity farming methods and the use of shade trees result in lower yields. While the environmental benefits of producing organic coffee are many, the economic advantages are few, and for farmers living in poverty, the immediate struggle to sustain a family will naturally tend to overwhelm concerns about water quality or exposure to chemicals. While certified-organic coffee is sold at a premium, the lower yields mean that farmers do not always profit in a meaningful way from obtaining the certification.[13]

A more recently developed label that appeals to consumers concerned about the environmental effects of coffee is the Rainforest Alliance certification, often found on products from large corporations like Kraft and Nestlé. Unfortunately, its standards are so low as to make the certification almost meaningless. Unlike a Fair Trade certification, the Rainforest Alliance does not guarantee a fixed price to growers, leaving them vulnerable to the rise and fall of coffee prices on the stock exchange[14]. Although the Rainforest Alliance certification does include some provisions on the use of biodiversity and agrochemicals that are used, organic cultivation is not strictly required.[15]

Fair Trade initiatives aim to provide farmers with an equitable price for their coffee and labor; however, the coffee crisis – a steep decrease in the price of coffee over the last few decades – has left many farmers in debt to their cooperatives.[16] When the additional income provided by Fair Trade is diverted toward paying off debts and shouldering rising production costs, the actual living conditions of coffee-producing families does not improve. For this reason, a Fair Trade label does not guarantee that the farmers who produced the coffee have a reasonable standard of living or better working conditions than they otherwise would. Furthermore, it should be noted that the premium charged for Fair Trade coffee does not go to coffee farmers in its entirety. Rather, much of it is expended on marketing, administration, processing facilities, and labor at other levels of production.[16] Fair Trade certification, while a step in the right direction, cannot by itself resolve the inequities of the coffee industry; as Bradley R. Wilson (2010) notes, “There are broader political-economic factors outside of price that must be addressed for farmers to earn a livelihood and to overcome cycles of indebtedness.”[16]

Fair Trade has also experienced some changes recently.


Food Empowerment Project encourages individuals to choose a vegan lifestyle, with the understanding that compassionate choices do not have to end there. Individuals can also make impactful decisions by purchasing products, such as coffee, from ethical sources, but Westerners really should begin to view coffee as a luxury, and people should consume less as part of reducing its environmental impact. Gaveau et al. (2009) found that law enforcement to reduce deforestation was helpful, but not completely effective, and concluded that “In the long run one must act to decrease incentives for coffee cultivation.”[19]

If you can, work on getting more sleep versus using a stimulant such as coffee, and if you are going to buy coffee, we recommend supporting the companies below. All of the coffees recommended are shade grown except for Coop Coffee, which sources coffee grown from varying degrees of shade to more direct sunlight.


[1] Bacon, C. (2005). Confronting the Coffee Crisis: Can Fair Trade, Organic, and Specialty Coffees Reduce Small-Scale Farmer Vulnerability in Northern Nicaragua? World Development, 33(3). 497-511.

[2] Perez, M. G. (2013, March 22). Coffee Consumption Increases in U.S., Association Survey Shows. Bloomberg. Retrieved from (5/27/14)

[3] Rice, R. (2003). Coffee Production in a Time of Crisis: Social and Environmental Connections. SAIS Review XXIII(1). 221-245.

[4] Kruger, D. I. (2007). Coffee Production Effects on Child Labor and Schooling in Rural Brazil. Journal of Development Economics, 82(2), 448-463.

[5] International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour. 2004. Safety and Health Fact Sheet: Coffee. Geneva: International Labour Organization. (5/27/14)

[6] Kaye, M. (2008). Arrested Development: Discrimination and Slavery in the 21st Century. London: Anti- Slavery International. (5/27/14)

[7] COVERCO. (2003). The Culture of Coffee in Guatemala. Retrieved from (5/27/14)

[8] Blackman, A., et al. (2005). Deforestation and Shade Coffee in Oaxaca, Mexico: Key Research Findings. Resources for the Future Discussion Paper 39. 1-12. (5/27/14)

[9] Person, L. (2008). Ethics and Environment in the Coffee Sector – Linking CSR to the Consumer’s Power in the Context of Sustainable Development. (5/27/14)

[10] Goldsmith, E. (1997). Can the Environment Survive the Global Economy? The Ecologist 27(6).

[11] Beyene, A., et al. (2012). The Impact of Traditional Coffee Processing on River Water Quality in Ethiopia and the Urgency of Adopting Sound Environmental Practices. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 184(11): 7053-7063.

[12] Chanakya H.N., De Alwis A. A. P. (2004). Environmental Issues and Management in Primary Coffee Processing. Process Safety and Environmental Protection 82(B4): 291-300.

[13] Valkila, J. (2009). Fair Trade Organic Coffee Production in Nicaragua – Sustainable Development or a Poverty Trap? Ecological Economics. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2009.07.002

[14] FAO Commodities and Trade Division. (2004). Voluntary Standards and Certification for Environmentally and Socially Responsible Agricultural Production and Trade. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (6/5/14)

[15] Sustainable Agriculture Network. (July 2010). Sustainable Agriculture Standard. (6/5/14)

[16] Wilson, B.R. (2010). Indebted to Fair Trade? Coffee and Crisis in Nicaragua. Geoforum 41(1). 84- 92.

[17] Lynn, G., Rogers, C., “Civet cat coffee’s animal cruelty secrets,” BBC News, September 13, 2013.

[18] Associated Press, “Coffee from an elephant’s gut fills a $50 cup,” USA Today, December 7, 2012.

[19] Gaveau, D.L.A., et al. (2009). Three decades of deforestation in southwest Sumatra: effects of coffee prices, law enforcement and rural poverty. Biological Conservation 142 (3):597-605.

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