• Thomas Schueneman

Coffee in the Modern World

This is part one of the three-part series "Beyond the Bean" about coffee.

Image credit: Thomas Schueneman. All Rights Reserved

Coffee is arguably our most accepted addiction. More than accepted, it’s encouraged. Coffee is a $47 billion dollar industry. Sip by energizing sip, we drink a lot of the stuff.

And that’s fine by me.

I depend on at least a few sips of coffee to face the day. I’m not alone. For most of us, It is an important ritual. By some estimates, we collectively drink 2.25 billion cups of coffee every day. It seems we are all doing our part.

According to the latest official 2019/2020 tally from the International Coffee Organization, global consumption stands at 167,592,000 60kg bags of coffee annually.

It’s difficult to visualize these numbers but it is a lot of coffee. And we expect it to always be there.

Like other commodities we consume in the modern world, we have only a vague idea of how it reaches us. As we stumble toward our first morning cup, the important thing is that it does. . It’s a different kind of morning for a coffee drinker with no coffee.

Coffee consumption reflects our human experience in a number of ways: social bonding, personal productivity, cultural identity, simple wakefulness. Coffee is the lubricant of human endeavor.

What would happen if we ran out of coffee?

Well, that’s unacceptable. Especially if you plan on being alive in 2050.

In this first in a series of articles, we’ll explore the basics of the coffee supply chain, why it’s vulnerable and unsustainable at current consumption levels.

After that, we’ll look at what one innovative Seattle start-up is doing about it.

But first, let’s get a cup of coffee.

The Coffee Supply Chain

The coffee landing in our cups every morning begins its journey as a cherry on a coffee tree grown in a part of the world known as the coffee belt. The coffee belt is an equatorial band hugging Earth’s middle between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.

The climate for growing coffee is wet, tropical, and changing. Unless you live in Colombia or Peru, Vietnam or Myanmar, Kenya or Ethiopia, it’s a long way from the barista on the other side of the counter preparing your brew.

Nearly all the coffee consumed in the world is grown by small-holder farmers struggling to survive as the forces of global coffee conglomerates and climate change seemingly conspire against them.

Fair Trade coffee provides a more ethical, end-to-end transparent supply chain than the global conglomerate coffee producers, giving growers and the environment a break. But even after years on the market, its impact remains small.

Rethinking Coffee From the Molecule Up

There is a lot of money, labor, habitat, and carbon tied up in the supply chain between a coffee cherry-picked by hand on an equatorial hillside and that cup of coffee we drink before we’re ready to start the day.

Weighing these consumption and supply chain patterns with the environmental cost invites a new way of thinking about coffee. Right down to the molecule.

In our next article, we’ll talk with Andy Kleitsch and Jarrett Stopforth, the founders of Atomo Coffee.

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