03 November 2021

Chocolate, Coffee, and Sustainability

Chocolate and coffee are harmful to humans and to the environment in several ways.

Industrial-scale farmers clear forests to plant the trees and shrubs that are the source of coffee and cacao beans. The resulting habitat loss contributes to species extinction, and the loss of trees means more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Roasting the beans, manufacturing chocolate bars, and shipping the end products also releases a lot of CO2.

There's a good run-down of the evils of chocolate here, and of coffee, here.

According to Our World in Data, carbon dioxide emissions per kilogram of chocolate and coffee are comparable to those of cheese and shrimp: not as bad as beef and lamb, but many times higher than the carbon footprints of lentils and soy beans.

Go here for a larger version of the chart.

So if you're paying attention to the ecological impacts of your diet, coffee and chocolate are up there, pound for pound. 

As you can see from the chart above, net emissions of tree nuts are about three-tenths of a kilogram of CO2 per kilo of nuts, because the trees themselves take up CO2 as they grow. (On the other hand, they need a lot of water, and farmers in drought-prone places like California probably shouldn't be growing them.) Apples net 0.4 kg of CO2 per kilo, peas 0.9, tomatoes 1.4, and cane sugar 3 kg of CO2 per kilogram consumed. 

But there's a big difference in the quantities consumed. On average, Americans consume nearly 10 pounds of coffee per year and more than 11 pounds of chocolate

That compares to a total of well over 200 pounds per person of meat: in 2020, we averaged almost 100 pounds of chicken, almost 60 pounds of beef, and just over 50 pounds of pork. On top of that, we ate around 16 pounds of fish.

If you're wondering, we ate, on average, 145 pounds of vegetables in 2020. And we consume, on average, just over 150 pounds of sugar every year. 

So the carbon footprint of our sugar turns out to be higher, in the aggregate, than the impact of our coffee and chocolate, which in turn is far lower than the total average carbon footprint of the meat we collectively eat.

In terms of individual choices, it's is environmentally sound to limit consumption of coffee and chocolate, and certainly to seek out shade-grown and fair trade varieties. 

But you'll have a bigger impact if you trade in your gas guzzler for an electric car, put solar panels on the roof of your house, fly as little as possible, and vote for lawmakers who will fund public transportation and renewable energy.

1 comment:

  1. What a relief! I fear I may be consuming more than my annual share of chocolate, but I think I balance it by not consuming some of the other high-resource foods.
    (We wanted to put solar panels on the house, but it's too shaded! And the trees in question aren't even on our property, so at least we were spared the problem of whether it was better to cut down a couple of trees to try solar.)