Without those two, where would I be?
Out without a paddle on the deep blue sea.
I love coffee and I love tea.
No, seriously, I LOVE coffee and I LOVE tea. I love them even more than beer, with whom I have a kind of love/hate relationship, given that the bigger the night I have with beer, the less I like myself in the morning after but, once I'm getting into the swing of things with it, the more I want of it. Beer keeps things interesting, however, so I'm not down on it, by any means. On more than one occasion during a big night out with beer, I've met some incredible, beautiful people who've enriched my life. Yes, so beer is definitely in the mix, but only as mood and pocket change permit.
Coffee and tea, on the other hand, are everyday must-haves. Tea lifts this ailing shell out of its post-sleep torpor and, that duly achieved, raises my blood pressure to the point where the afterburner of several cups of full-bodied coffee can be allowed to kick in. Only then can I sit down at the piano and practice a song or two as if I were on stage in front of a packed house.
Nothing I can say about coffee can add anything to the countless tributes of exultation coffee has earned itself from writers of merit. In all its forms of preparation, coffee is a staple upon which minds, both great and small, depend in some way. Some use it to wake up, others to get going and still others to avoid falling asleep. A great many use it just to get a break from whatever's in front of them. It's the pretext that helps those who'd like to know what's up with one another get together, including those intent on romance. The true gourmand uses a demitasse of it to put the finishing touch on the evening's meal. Drivers, bedeviled by the hallucinations of night driving on long trips, get it to avoid death behind the wheel. Young women drink lattes to-go, seemingly by the gallon, for reasons I have yet to fully understand. Had too much alcohol to drink to feel secure about driving? Nothing works to bring you back to your center like a cup of good, strong, black coffee with a teaspoon of sugar. There are even those who like to drink coffee like a night cap, even though it's supposed to wake you up.
This seems an appropriate point at which to announce out that October 1st, 2016 was the second annual official WORLD COFFEE DAY.
But there's something about coffee, particularly, that we should pay more attention to, especially if we think sustainable production of high quality coffee is an important goal for producing-countries and consuming-countries to strive for - the dread scourge of soil degradation caused by establishing a one-way conveyor belt of vital nutrients from plantations to the sewers and landfills of consumers. This concern carries the extra weight that this final transfer moves from mostly poorer countries (exceptions are the USA and Australia whose combined output is around 3,600 metric tons - .0041 percent of world production of 8,315,984 metric tons), where the hourly cost of the labor needed to harvest and process the coffee for shipment is relatively cheap, to richer countries where people (at least, those of them that still have paying work) are notably better off - as in, not living so close to the edge of daily survival. In its very essence, this business is inequitable, to some degree, although there are many trying to reconcile that fact, with some recent success, by shortening the supply chain and, thereby, leaving a larger percentage of the final per/lb cost paid by the consumer available for paying the hands-on producers. Such counter-measures against inequity aside, however, the long-term peril of soil depletion persists and we must address it now or pay a painful price for failing to get a counterbalancing flow of vital nutrients established that is as organic as the coffee we drink.
The first small steps have been taken toward reducing outright waste. Many municipalities - at least, those with a progressive and industrious bent (read, those with a higher proportion of younger adults) - have taken on the task of creating facilities that make compost from organic waste, along with legislation that encourages or compels citizens to separate their household waste streams into compostable matter, recyclable materials and non-recoverable garbage. Those with the best systems even separate woody compostables from food-derived side product, such as peels, cores and, most notably, spent coffee grounds, since these produce the highest and most easily produceded grade of compost. That, at least, keeps useful compounds within the biological envelope of the world. What it doesn't do, however, is keep nutrients within that envelope in the kind of balance that are best for the production of all food products, particularly as regards coffee.
In the UK, a company called Bio-Bean has created a success out of using spent coffee grounds to make high-grade stove pellets. Currently, they take in 50,000 metric tons of raw material - ten percent of what UK coffee drinkers produce - and that recapture rate is increasing. Environmental groups cite this as an example of free market ingenuity being the antidote to outright waste. Though it does have a 'green' upside to it, in that something once wasted is now being used to provide energy, while acting as an offset for the use of ancient-carbon fuels, it still falls far short of the kind of bi-lateral, symmetrical exchange in trace nutrients needed to keep soil inventories on both sides of the coffee trade healthy.
The reader may be thinking that I have some kind of solution up my sleeve that would slow or stem this giant global problem. In all truth, I don't. The fact is that a huge amount of biological material, perfect for soil amendment currently ends up in the mixed garbage and mixed sewage streams. Ideally, we would not be mixing recoverable waste materials of a bio-active nature that can be turned into high grade fertilizer with materials that are either potentially toxic or problematic to the achieving of that end.
Some progress has been made toward streaming different types of waste for recycling but the potential for greater sophistication in that area is far from being tapped out. I'm a believer in the idea that government has to lead the way by investing heavily and ostentatiously in systems and companies of sufficient scale and institutional will to make believers out of skeptics. When it looks like the players really mean business, the cache of supporters is increased and that of critics diminished. The skeptics I'm referring to are average people of generally good intent who tend to sit on the fence about things until they see them appearing to work out well. Only then, are they content to fall in line and get with the program.
The beauty of sorting what you don't want into well defined repositories is that it preserves the opportunity for all players, both active and potential, to be able to use those resources intelligently and at a scale large enough to derive useful recovered product efficiently. A good example of this is the well-established industries that use recovered aluminum in countless forms - everything from balls of used foil to the cut off ends of massive beams - to make a slew of gleaming new products - like the case of this Dell Precision M65 laptop I'm using, for instance. The cardinal mistake that many naysayers make, in assessing whether new ways of doing things are viable, or not, is in completely dismissing the role of what appears to be normal social behavior, as opposed to aberrant. They claim that people only will do what it suits them to do. Nothing could be further from the truth. At 68 years of age, I look back and see many forms of behavior, once considered normal when I was a child, that are now considered aberrant by the majority - casually lighting up a cigarette anywhere you like, racist humor, blatant sexist behavior, the underpaying of women for equal work done, racial segregation, casual cruelty to animals, throwing litter out of a car window, disposing of chemicals down the drain, beating children, trophy hunting of rare animals, dumping used motor oil on the ground, just to name a few. In most of America's large cities, you can add to the list, not sorting your household solid waste into recyclable and non-recyclable materials. The point I'm trying to make is that the overwhelming majority of people get used to doing things the way they believe is the right way and that, given time, most will come around to supporting institutions of social action, regardless of whether doing involves a little extra effort on their part.
If that is indeed a fact of social behavior, then the potential for creating a complex of systems designed to return vital nutrients, present in coffee grounds and municipal sewage in the coffee-consuming world, to the tropical lands whence they arose as raw bean tonnage. Bio Bean has already shown that thoughtful users are prepared to participate in the massive collection of used grounds (which, by the way, make an excellent compost additive). The basic components that are taken up by the coffee producing lands from the air - carbon dioxide, oxygen, water and nitrogen - are universally available. Those components that are not part of the atmosphere include the following. The list that follows was excerpted from an analysis of inorganic versus organic coffee, posted on the internet. Don't be confused by the numbers; they denote the number of milligrams of the listed element per gram of, first, organically grown coffee and, second, coffee grown using inorganic chemical fertlizers:
I don't want to get into comparing "organic" against "inorganic". Different soil regions will, doubtless, produce different ratios. But just look at that range of trace elements coffee uses to create that beautiful flavor we so love! (By the way, naturally occurring strontium is not radioactive. Chemically, it mimics calcium). The above says nothing about the molecular arrangement of these elements, made by the plant and the full complex of living organisms, large and microscopic that surround and inhabit it. We have to keep in mind that it takes work by living systems to make all those delicate - but vital - organic molecules, so the less those systems have to work to put those elements back in place, after agricultural activities have occurred, the easier it is for the soil and plant to grow, thrive and produce yet another crop of fruit and seeds (the seeds of the coffee plant being what we want for our morning repast).
Naturally, the same concern applies to the production of fine-tasting black and green tea from the the camellia sinensis plant. The commercial production of this kind of tea occurs in cooler hill country of various tropical nations in Asia. The work involves careful harvesting of the newer growth of plantings. Originally, harvesting at scale was made possible only with the manual help of many skilled pickers, paid a daily pittance for their work under the fierce tropical sun. Today, mechanization has reduced the amount of field labor required. The soils, however, still have to bear the demand from the world's steadily growing number of tea drinkers. As with coffee producing areas, the nutrient drain is incessant.
I'm not saying that I have any really implementable ideas that would slow this slow transfer of phyto-chemicals from poorer nations to the waste-handling systems of the developed world. What I'm saying is that we should start resolutely down the path of exploring how nutrient recovery and return, from the waste systems of consuming nations to the soils of the producing regions, might be implemented, slowly and progressively, so that the internal financial structures involved in this sector have time to adapt.
That would be a good thing, indeed.