I use Coffee—one of the most familiar and commonly consumed beverages in the Western world—as an entry point into a discussion about what is biodiversity, human use and value of biodiversity products, and the effects of the global trade in coffee as a commodity. I incorporate this unit on coffee by immersing students in the literature on coffee and its consumption and organizing field trips to local coffee outlets that support the ethical production, trade and sale of coffee. I also have coffee farmers in the Caribbean and Latin America meet with my classes live online to discuss what it means to be a coffee producer in the global south (where all coffee is produced).
It is invaluable to introduce students to the globality of coffee, because scholars make clear that commonly consumed commodities are immersed in economic systems and human populations from very different geographies that have profound implications for biodiversity, sustainability and social justice. Agriculture is a leading cause of global environmental degradation. Coffee helps students to think about the global effects of agriculture, the importance and concerns facing biodiversity in tropical/developing countries, and the opportunities and responsibilities of western coffee consumers to contribute to the ethical and sustainable production and consumption of coffee from farm to cup. Coffee really provides an invaluable and familiar case study to learn about many key themes in Environmental Studies, including the impact of common forms of agriculture, pesticides and pollution, the commodification of nature, and its links to western affluent lifestyles and issues of privilege and class.
I hope that students will leave this course with an understanding of this important global commodity chain, including where their coffee comes from, how their own consumption of coffee and the specific types of coffee they purchase (“regular,” organic, fair-trade, shade grown) can have profound implications for tropical deforestation, climate change, endangered species, and for the health and wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of nameless coffee farmers globally. As consumers, I also hope that students gain an appreciation for the complex network of other concerns that are connected to their consumption of coffee, including the industry’s connection to problematic milk/livestock industry, to single use cups and plastic straws, and how they can be part of meaningful change.