Coffee is a daily morning staple to a lot of us. Many of us enjoy this rocket fuel not only for the caffeine kick, but also for the myriad flavors it offers. From its unique aroma to its distinct flavor and aftertaste, coffee can be so reviving!
My name is Viji Ganesh and I have been working at Minus for over two years as an R&D Scientist. I was drawn to the company by its inspiring mission to create delicious products while caring for the planet at the same time.
Okay, so first it was animal-based foods, and now coffee? Why do people keep ringing the sustainability bell on all the best things on earth? Would it be rice and potatoes one day?
Sustainability is a complex term that can be approached from various angles, or the 3Ps:
- People (social: laborers, wages and employment)
- Planet (environmental: land, water, air, waste)
- Profit (economic growth with social and environmental preservation)
Why is coffee considered unsustainable?
Socially (People): 80% of small holder families around the world live below the poverty line.The majority of coffee is produced by smallholder farmers who depend on coffee as their primary source of income. However, there is often an unequal distribution of value and risk in the coffee supply chain.
- Environmentally (Planet):
- It takes 140-170 liters of water to brew 1 cup of water.
- Coffee processing discharges agrochemicals that affect the rivers and aquifers
- Around 23 million tons of waste is generated per year
- And consider the carbon footprint coffee emits by transporting it across the world (air travel)
- Economically (Profit): The traditional method of coffee farming, known as 'shade-grown' or under natural canopies, is being replaced by 'sun-grown' coffee on deforested land to increase yield, resulting in environmental tradeoffs (approximately one square inch of rainforest is cleared for each cup of coffee produced). In the last four decades, coffee growers have faced increasing climate hazards, such as rising temperatures, droughts, and frosts. This systemic shock in the tropics is predicted to worsen with climate change.
Wait, isn’t there fair-trade coffee - isn’t that sufficient?
To some extent, yes. It is like choosing between organic vs conventional beef. You raise them well and there is less damage to our biodiversity and farmers. However, the other problems still remain. For this reason, it is important to explore a new way of brewing coffee.
That's why we're excited to introduce our beanless cold brew.
Right from the product development stage, we have been obsessed on the environmental impact Minus would have to deliver.
Through the product life cycle, we measured the top five scientific metrics typically used to gauge our performance against coffee:
1. Greenhouse gas emissions
2. Freshwater used (freshwater is a combined version of water consumed due to irrigation, rainfall, and clarification)
3. Land used
4. Terrestrial acidification: A trade-off to the soil due to excess nitrogen and sulfur deposition from factory emissions of gases (ammonia, sulfur dioxide, etc.).
5. Eutrophication: The excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture can lead to nitrogen and phosphorus run-off into waterways and increase algal growth. When these algae die, they produce carbon dioxide, acidify the water, and cause the ocean folks to suffer.
While the first three metrics (GHG, water, and land use) are common, the latter two were important to us because our beanless coffee is an agriculture-derived product.
Let's face it, agriculture is responsible for utilizing half of the habitable land on earth, 70% of freshwater use, and 78% of eutrophication.
Therefore, considering the impact on all these fronts, we can confidently say that we have performed well by using agro-resources. We created a rigorous internal and external model, including an independent third-party evaluation.
To establish a reference point for coffee, we collected data on the five metrics (including Poore & Nemececk's (2018) research) from various origins worldwide, such as Brazil, Kenya, Central/Latin America, Vietnam, Swiss, and Colombia. These values were then averaged to form our baseline for comparison. Next, we compared the final metrics of Minus, which were based on the aggregation of our ingredient portfolios, to the reference coffee.
To refresh your memory, our current cold brew is made up of:
+ Natural caffeine boost!
Who knows how much more nutritional and functional food benefits you are getting in this shameless cold brew, if not more than regular cold brew (may call for its own blog, some day).
So what did the assessment showed about our product?
Minus achieves an impressive reduction of 87% in greenhouse gas emissions and eutrophication, with a 94% reduction in freshwater usage. Additionally, we managed to reduce land usage by 87% and terrestrial acidification by 82%, which we consider a significant accomplishment.
In hindsight, we did not take into account the land we cleared up by upcycling the seeds every year. As date seeds account for approximately 15% of the fruit's weight and grape seeds account for 20-50% of the wine pomace's weight.Where as compared to coffee, 80% of the cherry goes to landfill. It's also important to note that date palms are a significant contributor to terrestrial acidification, but we use the trashed seeds rather than the date fruit.
How? The ingredients and proportions we use do come with their own limelight of ‘sustainability’. Get ready for the assault of information:
- Date palms survive in the worst of climatic conditions (including salty soil) and sequester more carbon than other similarly sized trees.
- The use of upcycled date seeds and grape seeds uses only one-third of the water used for cultivation of the parent plant and the cleaning process.
- Root vegetables like chicory not only have a low carbon footprint and agricultural requirements, but it also produces a surplus.
- Carob and lentils are legumes that help in carbon and nitrogen fixation and, in turn, they also replenish the soil.
- Carob, lentils and millet are also drought resistant. Meaning they need less water and can grow wild locally without any fertilizers.
- Sunflower is a rotational crop with aggressive roots that can tap into leached nutrients that other crops cannot reach. This special feature also makes it drought-tolerant.
- Needless to say, carob and sunflower make good cover and attract birds and biodiversity.
If you ask us about regenerative practices, yes, we know that our date and millet farmers adopt it. Over 94% of our ingredients are sourced from within the U.S., and that reduces the carbon footprint linked to air or water freight. All of these ingredients can survive climate change, lend a hand to the demand without deforestation and other negative impacts of coffee.
True to life coffee, crafted to conserve.
As for my earlier reference to rice and potatoes, nah, we may very well be endangered by the time these foods reach the ‘sustainability’ radar. But if you want to rethink that cup of Joe or be the flexitarian, you have a choice to confidently pick: Coffee ’Minus’ the beans!
Stay tuned for more of the revolution.
P.S. A latest update on our LCA analysis:
Our latest values show that Minus achieves a 87% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions vs 91%. The 91% value took into account the carbon footprint of each of our ingredients (from farm, to processing and roasting). To add extra rigor and compare against roasted coffee (whose GHG emissions also includes the travel footprint across countries as green beans to roasters) we factored in the carbon footprint of the ingredients used in our beanless cold brew (94% locally sourced and 6% from outside of U.S.). This additional step factored the carbon footprint created by the transit of ingredients from their origin to our processing facility (local via ground transport; international via a combination of water and ground transportations).
Note that the majority of the GHG reduction in our value still takes place at the cultivation end. That's why we choose low-impact, and water saving ingredients when brewing our cold brew (compared to coffee).