From Seed to Cup: the Champions and Challenges of Producing Carbon Neutral Coffee

Coffee might be part of our daily ritual, but how often have you stopped to think about the journey those beans have been on to reach you? In partnership with Nespresso, we dive into the practicalities of coffee production and look at the efforts being made to make our morning brew more sustainable.

Published on 17 January 2022

It’s a long way from the cloud-piercing mountains of the Quindio region of Colombia, where Andres Rodriguez was born, to his twin businesses in East Brisbane, Crop Del Monte and Cafetal Coffee Roasters, where he imports, distributes and roasts the famous coffee of his homeland. Rodriguez’s grandfather was a coffee farmer, and during the school holidays Rodriguez and his cousins would descend upon the family farm to help with the harvest. Everything was done by hand.

Andres Rodriguez

“We’d pick the cherries and bring them to the processing station on the farm,” Rodriguez says. “Then we’d put the beans in a big tank and start the fermentation process. My uncles would rinse the beans and we’d dry the coffee on the roof. Then we’d sell it to the local coffee buyer.”

Now, Rodriguez’s importing operation is part of a global coffee market worth more than US$100 billion. It’s big business, and with that comes the potential for a big environmental impact. The cup of coffee you drank this morning probably had its origins on a farm not dissimilar to Rodriguez’s family in Central America, Africa or Asia. Or perhaps it was shipped to production facilities in Switzerland to be roasted, ground and made into recyclable Nespresso capsules – perhaps you’re even drinking one while reading this. Either way, the coffee bean would have gone through multiple stages of processing, production and transport to find its way to your cup. But what does that journey actually look like, and can it be done in an environmentally sustainable way? Could it even be done in a carbon-neutral way?

It starts with the coffee cherry, which you pick when it’s fully red

To find out we spoke to three experts at different stages of the production chain: a local homegrown farmer, a South American coffee educator and a Nespresso brand ambassador detailing the global perspective.

Courtesy of Nespresso

How it begins

If there’s one person who knows the journey from bean to cup it’s David Peasley, who first planted coffee trees at his property in northern NSW 40 years ago. He currently has around 100 trees and produces about 200 kilograms of coffee a year.

“Enough for about two years’ drinking with friends and family,” he says.

David Peasley

Homegrown coffee, however, is an anomaly – with Australia importing about 99 per cent of its coffee (a whopping 1.4 million 60 kilogram bags of green beans worth around $473 million).

“Most coffee in the world is grown in the tropics,” says Peasley. To impart the equivalent flavour and quality to the coffee he grows here in the subtropics, Peasley’s coffee is submitted to the same cool growing conditions as high-grown coffee in the tropics. “It starts with the coffee cherry, which you pick when it’s fully red, and from there it goes through a pulper machine to remove the skin.”

Coffee cherries then go through a pulper machine to remove the skin and leave us with a green bean

The metamorphosis is only just beginning, though. Inside the cherry are two beans, covered in a sticky, sugary substance called mucilage. This needs to be removed, often by soaking the beans in water to ferment, before you wash the beans, clean and dry them, until they have a moisture level of around 12 per cent. What you’re left with on the outside of the bean is a protective layer called parchment, and the bean can be stored for a long time with this layer to insulate it from the spoiling effects of humidity and oxygen. To get the bean to the export-ready, green-bean stage, the parchment must be removed, or “hulled”, by a machine – this then leaves you with a green coffee bean, sometimes called “raw coffee,” ready to be bagged and shipped round the world.

How it’s imported

“Importing from overseas uses a lot of fossil fuels,” Peasley says, “but the limitations (for growing enough of our own coffee) in Australia is shortage of suitable land and competing land use.”

The coffee that Rodriguez imports is shipped in 35-kilogram bags made from a natural fibre called fique. It typically takes between 30 and 45 days by sea for the beans to get from Colombia to his warehouse in Brisbane, ready to be distributed to clients around Australia. Both Rodriguez and Peasley have seen first-hand the environmental impacts of coffee production in places like Central America, where land-clearing has been rife, water use is intensive and, until recently, a business’s “carbon footprint” was a foreign concept.

Shipping by sea can drastically cut emissions

Rodriguez has spent much of the past 15 years educating farmers about becoming more sustainable, including going farm-to-farm around Colombia teaching growers why they need to preserve water, why they should be planting trees rather than chopping them down, and why shade is important for their crops.

“They were keen to learn because they get a really big benefit,” he says. “They realise that by looking after their soil they get a better product, and therefore, a better price. It all starts at the farm.”

Rodriguez says a single kilogram of coffee can produce 15 kilograms of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but by farming and transporting coffee more sustainably this can be reduced to three kilograms.

“You do this by using organic waste rather than chemical fertiliser, by using processing that doesn’t need water, by managing energy at the milling, by planting trees to capture carbon, and by shipping by boat, not plane,” he says. “It all adds up.”

How to embrace carbon neutral at a global scale

Adding up carbon footprints and working out how to reduce its own has been a major focus of Nespresso in recent years. In 2020, the company made a commitment that every cup of its Nespresso coffee would be carbon neutral by 2022. That deadline is almost upon us, but the company reckons it’s bang on target.

Mitch Monaghan

Nespresso coffee ambassador Mitch Monaghan says the company has had a long-standing commitment to sustainability, both at the farm level and right here in Australia, ensuring customers have access to recycle their used coffee capsules. But the movement begins on farms.

Since 2014, Nespresso has planted more than five million trees to provide shade, stabilise land and sequester carbon on coffee farms around the world. Its AAA Sustainable Quality Program, first launched in 2003, provides incentives for farmers to transition to more sustainable farming practices, such as planting shade trees and using less water.

“Farmers need to meet 296 criteria,” Monaghan says. “And if they do, they get a premium price for their coffee, about 40 per cent above market price.”

Green coffee beans are then roasted before being ready for consumption

Monaghan says sustainability improvements on farms don’t just help the environment, they help the farmers. “Because you’re going to have more shade trees and better biodiversity in the soil, you end up with a healthier tree that will produce a better-quality bean, and more of it, meaning farmers get a higher yield,” he says. “Farmers won’t have the confidence to invest in sustainable practices if the income isn’t there.”

Beans can then be ground and made into recyclable capsules

Coffee grown for Nespresso is shipped to production facilities in Switzerland to be roasted, ground and made into recyclable capsules (there are over 20,000 collection points in Australia to recycle the capsules). Not only do the facilities run on 100 per cent green energy but they capture the residual energy the coffee roasters put out. That energy (enough to power around 300 homes, according to Monaghan) is then fed back into the grid. Since 2014 the facilities have also been zero waste to landfill.

How to offset

Offsetting emissions caused by transport remains a huge challenge for the coffee industry. Monaghan says 100 per cent of the coffee shipped to Nespresso’s production facilities goes by road, rail or sea. Nothing goes by air. From there it makes its way to different corners of the globe by sea, where possible, further minimising CO2 emissions.

While the creation of carbon emissions from importing coffee can never be completely avoided, they can be offset.

Courtesy of Nespresso

Action on environmental challenges such as climate change can take a number of forms, including restoring essential habitat and building resilience into landscapes. In Australia, Nespresso has partnered with Greening Australia to plant 36,000 native trees in 2022 as part of the Great Southern Landscapes project. The project not only aims to become Australia’s biggest carbon sink (an area that absorbs more carbon than it emits), but it also helps rehabilitate degraded agricultural land and provide habitat for threatened species.

"It’s about us trying to safeguard the landscape, to support regeneration of bushfire-affected areas and bring back those essential wildlife corridors. But it’s also about making a difference at the local level."

Mitch Monaghan

Guilt-free cup of coffee

So, is it possible to enjoy a guilt-free cup of coffee, knowing the journey those precious, caffeine-infused beans have been on? It comes down to understanding the whole production cycle and seeing where the gains – and some compromises – can be made.

But by understanding the efforts made to mitigate that environmental impact, consumers are empowered to make more informed choices in their drinking habits. We might not be able to reduce our impact to zero, but we can constantly improve. Because, ultimately, we’re all on that same journey.

This story is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Nespresso.