Tuesday, April 28, 2009

in defense of coffee and water

Many many people read the article in The Economist - Excess Liquidity (online version). I personally didn't, I heard about it from many different people. I should have read it, but everything else in my life distracted me from reading the article myself. Then today I read another article about"Excess Liquidity" article. It was basically a visit to the same topic with other Specialty Coffee industry leaders speaking to the "water issue". It was a good article, but I found the language inflamatory. It seemed the author was advocating for The Economist's stance by passively shaking his finger at coffee farmers.

The premise is this, coffee uses the most water for beverage consumption, 1,120 liters of water to produce 1 liter of coffee. I have inserted the graph for easy reading. When 54% (ncausa.org) of adult Americans drink coffee, bad news about coffee sells. I'm not accusing The Economist of slandering coffee for the sake of magazine sales, I just want to point out how appealing it is to share [read sell] bad news about something that is so close to all of us. "You mean that thing I drink every morning is drying up water sources throughout the Tropics?" Another example, comes to mind: the gentelman who told me that he doesn't drink French Pressed coffee because it contains more cholesterol. Only to ask for sugar and cream when I serve him a cup of Chemex-ed coffee. !? Bad news about coffee strikes again!

Here is my point: I can only speak to water use in coffee that I have seen directly and personally. I know nothing about water usage in production of coffee packaging materials, which I'm sure there is much waters used, but I do know how a tiny farm in the DR (mine) and a very large farm in the DR use water in coffee production. I hate to think that people reading that article are doing the math and extrapolating the quoted amount of water per how many liters of coffee to feel guilty about their morning brew. One common mission to all of us in the Specialty Coffee industry is differentiation from the large scale commercial production of coffee. We are different. We are special. We do care a lot. And quality of life and the cup drive us to separate ourselves from massive coffee plantations that treat coffee and workers like little machines.

On my farm last harvest, I processed the majority of my coffee pulp-natural [a process defined by de-pulping the coffee cherries and drying them directly on raised beds without washing (no water)]. I didn't chose this method because of water usage issues, I chose it because of cup quality issues. In my manual [hand powered] depulper, we use a little tiny jug of water per 5 gallon bucket of coffee cherries. I do not irrigate any part of the coffee sections of my farm. The small amout of coffee that is washed is washed in next to the de-pulper and the run off waters the vegetable plot. I would estimate my total water usage for this last harvest of 600lbs of coffee to be less than 15o gallons of water.

On Karoma Estate, they do wash their coffee. It is a huge farm that produces many containers of coffee a year. Just last year they installed a beneficado ecologico, which massively reduces water usage. First, coffee is heavy. In order to move it through the systems, pumps and channels it must be suspended. Water is that medium. The system that Bent uses actually uses used water for the pumping of the coffee. Second, the mechanical washing of the coffee happens with clean water. In the fermentation tanks, some of the depulp water is used which has actually reduces the time needed to ferment the coffee, more water recycling. Eventually his system releases the water from depulping and washing coffee. Third, the water travels down a channel and into a series of two massive tanks: one is round the other egg shaped. When the water reaches the egg shaped tank the sugars are digested and methane is produced as a by product. That methane is captured pressurized and sent in two directions: the kitchen and dry mill. The kitchen uses methane for cooking. The dry mill, in this case, only involves mechanically pealing dried coffee. When the water leaves the egg shaped tank it is collected in a pond that can hold fish or water other plants. Bent has spent a lot of money and time on this system. Does he use 112o liters of water to produce one liter of coffee? No. What about his off set carbon foot print by using methane instead of gasoline?

Unless an article is written by an expert in the field, they typically get it wrong. Some times just barely, some times journalist miss the mark completely. I should read the article to see that there are sufficient disclaimers for small farmers like Bent and myself. But really, we are just drops in the bucket, albeit striving to be sustainable drops, we are just drops.

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