Coffee vs. Tea: How sustainable is your morning fix?

(Megan Westerby/ Flickr)

As temperatures continue to drop, students and New Englanders alike will seek warmth in their favorite hot beverage of choice. But your choice matters for the future of our planet’s health and the prosperity of future generations. This edition of Keeping Green is all about tea and coffee.

It is no secret that tea and coffee contain caffeine. Given that different coffees and teas, have varying levels of caffeine depending on the way they are processed and prepared, they all contain this drug, even decaffeinated coffee still contains some caffeine. Whether you are in denial about caffeine addiction or not, it is a drug and is one of the key aspects of its demand around the globe. Caffeine is the second most consumed beverage on the planet next to fresh water so demand will only increase as the population rises. The same can be said about coffee, both have huge global markets and are valued by almost every major culture in the world.

To make sure there is no confusion: in this article when referring to tea, we are talking about the young leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant that are harvested and dried. This includes most common types of tea. (black, green, white, gold, oolong, etc.) This excludes herbal teas and other botanical mixtures that can be steeped in water to make a beverage. Which brings us to the first point: freshwater consumption.

As human population continues to grow, the world‘s annual freshwater supply is becoming scarce. As of 2013, an estimated 90% of the world’s freshwater supply is used for agriculture to feed humans or livestock for human consumption. As consumers it is important to guide markets with our choices to make way for a more sustainable future. According to a recent study conducted by Dutch scientists, it takes roughly 140 liters of water to produce one cup of coffee because of the irrigation and the wet harvesting/processing technique used by many of the major coffee producers around the world. The amount of water needed to produce a cup of tea, however, is 8 times smaller than coffee.

Tea and coffee are both very similar, all things considered, and the tea vs. coffee debate has been going on for centuries. Preference aside, it is time to look at the raw facts. Both plants can only be grown in tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world which guarantees that what ever your preference is here in New England, your beverage has quite a bit of mileage that comes with it. Both plants have been blamed for heavy deforestation and loss of wildlife in their respective growing regions. Both coffee and tea are plants that require manual harvesting, but there is a real difference in when/how much can be harvested.

For coffee, there is only one harvest a year and these coffee monocultures are guilty of many of the tragedies of our modern food systems in the U.S. like artificial pesticide and fertilizer use that cuts down on biodiversity and soil health. When it comes to tea, depending on the growing climate and region, tea can be harvested year round and requires much less processing than coffee, which eventually trickles down into the economics of both markets. Not to mention the sugar and dairy that is more strongly associated with coffee consumption than tea.

At your local supermarket you might notice that per gram, coffee is often around double the price of tea. So now that you have been informed, what will you choose?

Lets say hypothetically that you are a coffee drinker and there is absolutely no way you could give up coffee and would never dream of drinking tea. Well first off, I hope you have tried lots of teas in order to make this statement because the variety of flavor and strength of tea far exceeds that of coffee. Here are some things you can do to be a more sustainable coffee drinker.

Look for products with certain certifications like the rainforest alliance, fair trade, and USDA organic badges. Also, when choosing your coffee look for local roasters to help support your local food economy and security. No matter your preference, always try to use reusable containers, even when buying coffee at a café. Many café’s will even give you a discount if you BYO cup. But if you need caffeine and still want to help save the planet, I strongly suggest a ban on coffee.


Dan Wood is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at daniel.wood@uconn.edu.