“It's often said that a bad day with coffee is better than a good day without.” A fair statement, no? If you asked any of the drinkers of the 2.25 billion cups of coffee drunk daily, they’d probably all give you a similar answer. Some research suggests that coffee may even have some positive health benefits. But this uniquity of caffeine consumption raises some serious questions about the damaging effects our coffee habits are having on the planet.
Let’s begin on a positive note: A research paper from April 2020 reviewed randomized clinical trials and other observational studies to show that coffee can reduce the risk of type two diabetes, cardiovascular disease, as well as several forms of cancer. So perhaps you are inadvertently protecting yourself from some harmful conditions each time you pop into your local cafe.
Sadly, the positivity ends there. Our growing demand for coffee presents us with a multitude of issues, many of which require urgent action.
The first of which is that we will soon be running out of suitable areas to farm coffee. By 2050, it is estimated that up to 50% of the land currently used for growing coffee will be lost to climate change.
To compensate for this, farmers and roasteries are trying to cultivate as much coffee as possible and have adopted destructive practices that can harm both the coffee plants and the surrounding ecosystem. Coffee is particularly vulnerable to a wide range of pests, including bacterial and fungal diseases, and as such, growers use an array of pesticides to reduce the number of wasted coffee plants. However, these chemicals can seep into local water sources and pollute the wider area.
This is not the only pressing issue. In the future, growers will have to adapt because climate change will inadvertently alter the types of fungi that manifest within their plants. This is because different types of fungi can grow within coffee plants at differing temperatures, and as we see a global increase in temperature, the types of fungal infection that coffee plants are susceptible to will change.
It is likely that there will be an increase in mycotoxin production, which is capable of causing a range of diseases. Mycotoxins are already commonly found in coffee, but because they can be potentially harmful they are regulated. Their prevalence in coffee is dependant on the climate in which the beans are grown. Ochratoxin content is very high in coffee from Turkey, Philippines and France but low in coffee from Ethiopia and, Thailand and Japan.
And this is why good farming practices such as proper drying of crops can help prevent mycotoxin contamination after harvest and reduce economic losses.
Mycotoxin contamination is treatable, and there are a range of agents that can bind and neutralize mycotoxins in the gastrointestinal tract, including activated carbon and clay.
But it is, of course, better to be proactive in dealing with this problem.
Perhaps the best way to help though is to be sensible and considerate in how we buy our coffee, and who we buy it from. Buying fairtrade coffees from a certified cooperative can help communities and growers access education surrounding potentially harmful fungi and how best to deal with them. Not only does this give the grower a fair price, but it’s better for the environment too.
So the next time you head into a cafe, remember to think about the sustainability of the coffee you’re buying and make sure you do your part for the greater good.
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Asprey, D., 2020. The Science Behind Just One Mold Toxin In Your Coffee. [online] Dave Asprey. Available at: <https://daveasprey.com/one-ugly-mug-the-science-behind-just-one-mold-toxin-in-your-coffee/> [Accessed 27 October 2020].
Viegas C, Pacífico C, Faria T, de Oliveira AC, Caetano LA, Carolino E, Gomes AQ, Viegas S. Fungal contamination in green coffee beans samples: A public health concern. J Toxicol Environ Health A. 2017;80(13-15):719-728. doi: 10.1080/15287394.2017.1286927. Epub 2017 May 26. PMID: 28548622.
Bunn, C., Läderach, P., Ovalle Rivera, O. et al. A bitter cup: climate change profile of global production of Arabica and Robusta coffee. Climatic Change 129, 89–101 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-014-1306-x
Ráduly Z, Szabó L, Madar A, Pócsi I, Csernoch L. Toxicological and Medical Aspects of Aspergillus-Derived Mycotoxins Entering the Feed and Food Chain. Front Microbiol. 2020 Jan 9;10:2908. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2019.02908. PMID: 31998250; PMCID: PMC6962185.