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The new CNN Business video This startup is making coffee...without coffee beans describes a recent entry into the coffee alternative market.

They use no coffee beans and start with date pits, something the company says would otherwise be "discarded".

The video feels somewhat like a promotion of a product, but my question is about the mention of deforestation in relation to traditional, actual coffee and one of the claims.

Shown in the screenshot, video shows the following three items in text, citing the company as the source of the information:

  • 94% less water
  • 93% less CO2 emissions
  • 100% less deforestation

and the CNN Business narrator says at the same time:

And since the date pits would otherwise be discarded, there's no deforestation involved.

Question: Would choosing coffee alternatives reduce deforestation? What is the deforestation rate associated with the coffee industry?


screenshot from the CNN Business video "This startup is making coffee...without coffee beans"

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One of the things about substitutes is sometimes they don't match the real thing. I was first introduced to carob as an alternative to chocolate years ago. As nice as carob is, I still prefer chocolate. Likewise with coffee substitutes, they will only become widely used if people like them or prefer them to coffee.

Coffee substitutes have been around for a long time. Apparently in 1766 Fredrick the Great banned the importation of coffee into Prussia.

“In 1766, Frederick the Great banned the importation of coffee into Prussia, leading to the development of the coffee substitute,” and chicory coffee was born.

Chicory coffee has been around for a long time. I can recall my mother drinking for a brief period in the 1960s. For her, instant coffee was better tasting than chicory coffee.

Having listened to various people who lived behind the iron curtain, during the Soviet era, a number of them described making and drinking coffee substitutes by roasting "various items", usually grains, because coffee was either unavailable or excessively expensive. They all abandoned the substitute coffee as soon as they could.

The other question is why do people drink coffee. Do they drink it for the taste, the social aspect of meeting someone over a coffee, or for the caffeine? Can substitute coffee satisfy all of these criteria? Why Starbucks Failed in Australia gives an interesting expose into the difference between the coffee cultures of Australia and the US - less expensive, quality coffee with a social aspect compared to caffination.

Demand for coffee is increasing, deforestation for coffee production is a significant issue,

According to coffee industry estimates, in order to keep up with consumer demand for coffee, coffee production will need to triple by 2050. This will require an area the size of Honduras and Nicaragua combined to be converted to coffee. The majority of the of this expansion would come at the expense of forest habitat, threatening the remaining forests in Central America

Deforestation for coffee production is a two fold problem. Initially part of a forest is cleared to create a coffee plantation and secondly, until recently, forest timber was used as a source of heat during in coffee dryers.

The firewood used to fuel industrial coffee dryers equates to approximately 3 cm2 of forest habitat per cup of coffee.

Some producers are changing to solar and bio fuels.

Each solar/biomass drying tower with Café Solar® saves nearly 1 hectare of forest each year.

Deforestation-free coffee has been considered, particularly in 2014, but there appears to be no significant results.

Varying terms used to communicate deforestation-free pledges make it difficult for stakeholders to know what exactly is being committed to. Participants expressed frustration that these terms sometimes overlap with one another and do not always communicate a clear meaning…

“deforestation-free” is a noble concept, it cannot exist in a sustainability silo, especially given all the local contexts under which agricultural crops are produced

The ultimate objective is not an end to deforestation per se, but realization of sustainable land management as a component of sustainable development… Some participants noted that one of the reasons we have not seen more deforestation-free commitments than we have is that governments are wary of making pledges that could be interpreted as hindering economic development, and that companies are concerned about sending mixed messages to their customers.”

Deforestation is not only a problem for coffee production, but also for tea, cacao and palm oil.

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  • Thanks for the thorough and (as usual) interesting and well-sourced answer!
    – uhoh
    Dec 2 '21 at 23:17
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I don't really think that deforestation due to coffee drinking would be a major problem. The main driver for reforestation is cattle used for meat and milk, including the area needed to grow food for the cattle. Reduce meat and milk use and replace them with substitutes, and the major cause of deforestation goes away. Coffee caused deforestation is nothing compared to that.

The main reason why companies like VTT are exploring alternative production methods for coffee, without needing any of the coffee plants and instead producing essentially the same thing with identical taste in a bioreactor is that climate change is rapidly reducing the area suitable for coffee cultivation.

So it's not due to coffee consumption causing ecological problems, but rather ecological problems making coffee production with traditional methods impossible.

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  • Interesting answer! Now I'm wondering if climate change is actually "reducing the area suitable for coffee cultivation" or is it more that it is moving it to other, uncultivated and perhaps undeveloped and/or inaccessible areas that would require deforestation (and time and money and carbon) to develop into new coffee production areas?
    – uhoh
    Dec 2 '21 at 23:16

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