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Is Coffee Bad for the Environment?

written by: Steve Graham•edited by: Niki Fears•updated: 11/7/2011

Fair trade coffee may seem environmentally harmless, but the cleaner soil and better working conditions can't reduce the heavy water usage involved in coffee production.

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    It's not hard to find environmentalists at an independent coffee shop trading statistics about the water footprint of meat vs. vegetables. The most popular comparison is 2,500 gallons (9,500 liters) of water for a pound of beef to 25 gallons (95 liters) of water for a pound of wheat.

    They are less likely to dive into an analysis of their coffee. Is coffee bad for the environment? If you consider water usage, the answer is yes. The coffee industry has widely adopted fair-trade and organic growing practices. However, despite the lack of pesticides and better working conditions in coffee-growing regions, coffee is still bad for the environment in some ways.

    The Water Footprint Network studied the water used to grow and produce a cup of coffee long before you filter in the tap water at your house. The group found each cup of coffee requires 40 gallons (150 liters) of water to grow and produce. That adds up to about half of the daily water usage in an average household. That's several showers and laundry load for each cup of Joe.

    The global total is more stark. It's harder to dispute coffee is bad for the environment knowing that growing coffee all over the world requires nearly 4 trillion cubic feet (110 billion cubic meters) of water per year.

    The concern is perhaps greatest in Africa, where up to half of the entire continent's population could face critical water shortages by 2025. Plenty of water is being diverted to grow coffee in water-scarce countries such as Ethiopia and Uganda. As a side note, coffee was first discovered and brewed in the 9th Century in Ethiopia.

    Water is also heavily used in processing the beans. Coffee experts swear by the washing method, which ferments the fruit surrounding the coffee bean and washes away the pulp with large quantities of water. The alternative is leaving the fruit to dry in the sun and fall off the bean. However, aficionados say the method produces poor taste.

    The coffee is then shipped all over the world. The global trade is another way in which coffee is bad for the environment. The top five coffee-producing nations are Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia and Ethiopia. The other main producers are also in Asia, South America and Africa.

    The top coffee-consuming nations are in Europe and North America. Finland consumes the most coffee per capita, and the United States imports the largest total amount of coffee. Shoppers who are looking for coffee that is not bad for the environment should consider the country of origin, and how far the coffee had to travel to reach their mugs.