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Chemicals and the global coffee industry

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While coffee may seem like a natural product, there really is no such thing as a chemical-free cup of coffee. Let's take a moment to consider that.

According to the Royal Society of Chemistry, the beverage contains a "tremendous number of chemicals", with over 1,000 aroma-producing compounds alone. It is this chemical richness that helps to give coffee not only its distinctive taste but also a whole host of other qualities – among them the power to boost an individual's concentration and alertness levels, as well as alleged health benefits, such as helping to prevent the onset of type 2 diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. 

However, not all of the chemicals that make their way into a morning cup of coffee occur naturally. Some get into the final product as they are used, for better or worse, in the production process – not least at the lower end of the market, as major corporations use almost any means necessary to maximise crop yields.  Unsurprisingly, chemicals are mainly used to protect coffee crops from natural pests. In most cases, the roasting process either eliminates or at least dilutes the harmful effects of the pesticides used by growers, though certain chemicals can cause significant harm to the environment. 

Take the pesticide Endosulfan, for example. While this is indeed effective against coffee cherry borer, a widespread nuisance, once it gets into the soil, it does not readily break down. In fact, it can attack the central nervous system, causing serious illness or even death, for any animal feeding off the same land where it is used. 

Meanwhile, Triadimefon, used by growers to protect crops against coffee rust, has been shown to be toxic to birds, while concerns have also been raised about the impact this and other copper-based fungicides have on the wellbeing of delicate ecosystems. 

Similarly, the US-based Pesticide Information Project warns that chlorpyrifos, commonly used to protect crops – including coffee – from a variety of insects, is "moderately to very highly toxic to birds" and is "highly toxic to freshwater fish", meaning any accidental spill-off into rivers or ponds can have a devastating effect. 

The problem gets even worse at plantations where regulations are either not in place or not enforced. Harmful chemicals, including DDT, are still reportedly being used by some coffee-producing areas, despite the fact that they have been shown to not only 'kill' lakes, streams and groundwater, but also harm plantation workers and their families. Indeed, the US-based Natural Resources Defence Council cites World Health Organization research revealing that the use of harsh synthetic fertilizers on some Latin American plantations has led to drinking water supplies becoming contaminated with nitrates and even causing the deaths of infants. 

To reduce the potential for harm, both to their own wellbeing and that of the planet, growing numbers of consumers are opting to switch to organic coffee, with growers and buyers following suit. An end product can only be certified as organic once inspectors have found no evidence of chemical pesticides and fertilizers being used in the growing process. 

It needs to be noted, however, that the use of chemicals in the coffee production process is not always a bad thing. Again, most unwanted chemicals are either removed or made harmless through the process of roasting, while some chemicals have a positive role to play. 

Methylene chloride, for example, is commonly used as a solvent to extract caffeine from the raw beans to produce decaf coffee, an increasingly common beverage among Western consumers.  Given the strict European trade laws covering what can be classified as decaf, the process is repeated several times until the residual caffeine content is below the required 0.1 per cent. 

So, the use of chemicals in the coffee growing and roasting process, is a complex issue. One thing that is certain, however, is that demand for organic coffee continues to rise and, so long as consumers are ready to pay a little extra for their daily cup, farmers around the world will increasingly abandon harmful chemicals, spelling good news for themselves and the planet.

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