The humble coffee bean, the small green seed found inside the coffee tree’s ‘cherry’ fruit, usually begins its journey on plantation farms in the developing world. It’s then picked, processed into roasted ground coffee, and shipped off to a number of international destinations. In fact, there are few places in the world where you won’t smell that rich aroma of coffee wafting through the air – and that includes our offices here at ELGA LabWater and Veolia Water Technologies!
But despite our coffee cravings, those sips of cappuccino we rely on to get us through our scientific studies have recently developed a more bitter taste, as we’ve realized just how much water goes into producing it. Shockingly, the water footprint of one standard European cup of coffee (125 ml) is 140 liters of water – that’s about 14 buckets full! Altogether, the world population requires about 264,000 cubic miles of water per year to be able to drink coffee. To put it into perspective, this is equivalent to almost 47 times the volume of the largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Baikal in Siberia!
Most of the water used in coffee production goes into growing the coffee plant. For example, water must be freely available to the plant during the period of rapid fruit expansion to ensure large, high-quality seed yields. Although some coffee growing regions can rely on rainfall as the main source of agricultural water, other more arid regions, such as Brazil, must use irrigation with water supplied from wells, reservoirs, or rivers.
On top of this, once the coffee beans are picked, the processes of pulping, fermentation, and washing the beans via the wet coffee production process (as opposed to the more traditional dry production process) also requires a water source, such as river or groundwater. Although this is only a very small fraction (0.34%) of the water that goes into growing the coffee plant, the wet method still uses up precious surface water that can be scarce and is often extracted unsustainably.
Despite the huge drain that coffee production can have on water resources, it’s not all doom and gloom. More advanced technologies and collaborative research are improving the way we use water in coffee production and other agricultural practices.
For example, Veolia Water Technologies is dedicated to performing international multidisciplinary research projects and developing innovative technologies to promote sustainable water use. For example, changing the irrigation method to drip micro-irrigation can help to conserve water while maintaining current crop yields. Using this controlled and localized water supply is more efficient and avoids water loss through deep soil percolation and surface runoff, while also bringing a variety of other benefits to coffee production.
We also must consider swapping our coffee for a cup of tea! The water footprint of a standard cup of tea (250 ml) is only 34 liters, compared to 280 liters for an equivalent size cup of coffee. This means that tea requires about eight times less water than coffee – so simply changing what we drink at ELGA LabWater could be one way to help save our planet’s precious water resources!