Coffee is loved around the world, but it is also facing a present day challenge in the form of a decline in production, especially as a result of climate change. Hydroponic coffee may form a viable part of the solution.
By Ricky Bourke
December 23rd, 2021
Writing Sample: An Argument for Hydroponic Coffee
Following the American Psychological Association’s Guidelines
There is little question that coffee is one of the most popular drinks, and, in this writer’s humble opinion, most delicious drinks in the world. Historically, coffee has held a significant place in human culture. The rise of coffee houses is speculated to have contributed to events of historical significance, including the advent of mathematics during the Ottoman Empire, the French Revolution, and the rise of capitalism in the late 19th century. Today, coffee is a staple of many people’s daily consumption. It has been estimated that 2.25 billion cups of coffee are drunk every single day (Pollan, 2019).
Coffee is grown all around the world between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer in what has been referred to as the “bean belt.” This includes countries such as Brazil, Peru, Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea and many more. Within these countries, Arabica coffee, which is known to supply 70% of the world’s coffee, is grown usually on mountainsides where it can stay consistently between 64°-70°F.
Because of these specific growing conditions, coffee plants are at high risk of being affected by climate change. Small farms are beginning to see the effect of climate change and are struggling to keep up with the demand for coffee. While these issues progress and worsen, there are potential solutions to mitigate the decline of the coffee (Davis et al., 2012).
A potential solution is using hydroponics to grow coffee. Hydroponics is a relatively new form of growing that uses climate-controlled greenhouses to grow plants in nutrient rich water. Hydroponics are a possible solution to the issue of climate change affecting coffee because it allows the coffee plant to grow in a climate-controlled space. This climate-controlled space removes the need for overseas shipping and allows for fair wages to be paid to those working on the plants. Despite the challenge of expense and needed expertise, I think that this may be the best solution to stop coffee from the negative impacts caused by climate change (Siddle & Venema, 2015).
Hydroponics’ utility was first documented in the 17th century when Francis Bacon cited his plants being grown without soil. Since that time, hydroponics has appeared in various forms, but was only taken seriously as a technique to grow plants in the 21st century. Hydroponics are a sustainable tool because of their highly efficient use of water. Studies have shown that to grow 2.2 pounds of tomatoes using traditional farming methods requires 110 gallons of water. To grow the same amount using hydroponics, only requires 18 gallons of water.
Hydroponics are usually used in indoor farming which furthers the efficiency of the growing process by using climate-controlled greenhouses. This method of growing is gaining popularity today, especially with high yield plants such as tomatoes, strawberries, cannabis, and various lettuce breeds. The plants are grown with their roots either exposed to nitrous liquid or supported, as needed, by a mineral such as gravel. The water is fertilized with nutrients that come from various sources which can be natural or artificial. There are many variations and combinations of techniques used to grow plants using hydroponics, but generally the process is similar (Siddle & Venema, 2015).
The temperature-controlled growing process of hydroponics greatly benefits the coffee industry. The process for growing coffee requires the plant to grow at an optimal temperature of 64°-70°F. Anything above this temperature will cause the ripening to accelerate, leading to a degradation of bean quality. Continuous exposure to temperatures around 86°F will severely damage plants and lead to low crop yields.
With climate change, studies estimate that land used for growing coffee will drop significantly. In various states in Brazil, drops in coffee production range from 25%-75%, with some states losing their entire capability of producing coffee by 2050. Coffee would be able to be grown anywhere in the world with hydroponic facilities, despite the detrimental impact of climate change’s erratic weather patterns. (Siddle & Venema, 2015).
Climate change will see a reduction of growing area, increased pests, and a loss of quality in coffee plants. The altitude for coffee production is estimated to rise from about 2,000 feet minimum to 3,500 feet above sea level. Pests thrive under warmer conditions. With warmer weather, insects, such as the coffee berry borer, have multiplied and spread all over the world. There has been an estimated $500 million in losses of coffee per year due to this pest. In addition to this issue, rising temperatures has led to outbreaks of fungal infections, which is spreading to high altitude growing areas (Siddle & Venema, 2015).
Hydroponics and indoor farming would be able to reduce issues of temperature, pests, and quality. In a controlled environment, the growing conditions for coffee would be consistent and safe. This would allow the coffee plant to grow at its optimal temperature, with no pests, and yield the highest quality beans (Siddle & Venema, 2015).
Hydroponics supports local economy growth by eliminating overseas shipping and overseas labor. Typically, coffee is shipped from the country of origin to the roaster, and then to the customer or coffee shop. This shipping process leads to high carbon emissions. Hydroponics eliminates shipping carbon emissions and returns production to local economies. Additionally, it creates local jobs. Small farms overseas often exploit workers who make as little as 1-3% of the retail price of their beans. Enabling coffee processing in local economies in the USA would not only create new jobs, but also fair wages to those who are working with the plants and coffee production (Siddle & Venema, 2015).
In addition to the positive aspects, there are challenging aspects to using hydroponics to farm coffee. To begin, there are high upfront costs. Where hydroponics may be more sustainable long-term, the initial costs of the facilities are high. Hydroponics need a sophisticated setup with artificial lights, an indoor shelter, irrigation, and many other supplies to even start farming. High-tech systems start in the tens of thousands of dollars, and if used commercially increase in cost. Coffee plants are also larger than most plants that are commonly grown using hydroponics.
These larger plants result in the need for larger housing to fit enough plants to grow a significant amount of coffee. In addition to the costs of the facility, the technology involved in the process of fertilizing and growing the plants demands skilled laborers who are trained in managing hydroponic farms and may require higher wages. Finally, the timeliness of hydroponic growth remains a barrier. One coffee plant takes three to five years to start producing coffee. Even after the equipment is purchased and installed, these facilities would have to be run for years without any product. Growing coffee using hydroponics may initially seem undesirable due to these barriers (Siddle & Venema, 2015).
The benefits to using hydroponics outweighs the challenges. The greatest risk for investors is the three to five years of growth before the coffee plant begins bean production. A possible solution to this time constraint may be government support. Government subsidies for agriculture and farming have increased over the years, with a record payment of $46.5 billion in 2020. Given the shifting nature of politics and the current administration, sustainability is at the forefront of policy creation and decisions. This is exemplified in policy like the Build Back Better Act, which supports the transition to electric vehicles and builds infrastructure to support them.
Additionally, this bill provides financial support to farmers and ranchers that practice smarter agriculture and forestry. In addition to government support, investing firms are spending money on sustainable agriculture practices. ESG investors spent $17 trillion in sustainable issues in 2021, with $2.38 trillion devoted to sustainable agriculture. Environmental, social, and governance investors are becoming more interested in using agriculture to fight climate change. With the development of different technologies like hydroponics, it is becoming more efficient and more accessible to farm using sustainable methods (Siddle & Venema, 2015).
Currently, there are not sufficient measures being taken to prevent the declining growing areas of coffee plants. Despite the innovation of modified plants producing coffee at lower altitude that are resistant to higher temperature, there are questions around the quality of the beans in these different breeds of coffee plants. Additionally, the increased transparency surrounding the production of coffee has resulted in consumers’ demands of fair-trade coffee and coffee with lower carbon impact.
These positive changes are shifting the culture of coffee towards more sustainable practices that demand a response to the massive threat of climate change on the coffee industry. In sum, government support of hydroponics has the potential to create local production, fair wages, and sustainable practices for a quality cup of joe (Davis et al., 2012; Siddle & Venema, 2015).
Davis, A.P., Gole, T.W., Baena, S., Moat, J. (2012). The impact of climate change on indigenous arabica coffee (coffea arabica): Predicting future trends and identifying priorities. PLoS ONE. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0047981.
Pollan, Michael. (2019). How caffeine created the modern world. Audible Originals, LLC.
Siddle, J. & Venema, V. (2015, May 24). Saving coffee from extinction. BBC News Magazine.
About the Author
Ricky Bourke is a coffee enthusiast/self proclaimed home barista who is a passionate outdoorsman and environmentalist. He has a personal background where he worked in geopolitics, tackling issues ranging from energy to global terrorism before switching to nonprofit work, leading a team of underprivelaged highschoolers to winning championships in the sport of rowng.
In his free time, Ricky can be found going for walks in the woods with his fiance, Chauncey, and his small dog, Bea. He enjoys writing about various environmental topics in his free time and is in the process of applying for various masters programs in an effort to make sustainability and environmental sciences his profession.