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From Tropical Plantations to K-Cups: A socio-environmental analysis of the global journey of coffee (2015-10)

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Jun 15, 2016
Madhusudan Katti, Andrew Rhys Jones, Mara Brady, and Beth Weinman

This is a case study of the social, environmental, and economic impacts of coffee production and consumption worldwide. Coffee, as a globally traded commodity, has a large and growing ecological footprint, from land and water resources dedicated to growing it in developing countries, often displacing biodiverse forest ecosystems, through its transport to markets worldwide, the energy and materials used to package it for the market, to the landfills where the waste eventually ends up, especially from new technologies of consumption such as Keurig cups. Coffee consumption also has significant social and cultural dimensions, adding to the economic value of the trade. There is also growing concern about the sustainability of coffee due to the threats of global warming, which is shifting the optimal growing regions, and prevalent monoculture of a narrow genetic pool which leaves coffee crops vulnerable to disease and other stressors. The global coffee system therefore exemplifies a “wicked problem” in sustainability: a complex Socio-Environmental System (SES) with many stakeholders dispersed across socioeconomically disparate and culturally diverse nation-states, with significant ecological impacts and an uncertain future. The case study is motivated by conflicting reports about the sustainability of Keurig coffee cups, and builds on students’ own experiences with coffee consumption to engage them in a conceptual analysis of the the global coffee SES. Students will work in small groups (3-4) to synthesize information about different aspects of the coffee SES, discuss impacts from different stakeholder perspectives, collaborate to develop a conceptual model to analyze the coffee SES and find sustainable solutions. Summative activities engage students to construct tools that show the interconnections between all parts of the SES, leading to a final signature assignment where students make recommendations for the most socially responsible and environmentally sustainable ways to consume coffee on campus.

Estimated time frame: 
Multiple class periods
SES learning goals: 
  • Understand the structure and behavior of socio-environmental systems
  • Consider the importance of scale and context in addressing socio-environmental problems
  • Co-develop research questions and conceptual models in inter- or trans-disciplinary teams
  • Find, analyze, and synthesize existing data, concepts, or methods
Has this been tested in the class room: 
Course and class size: 
California State University, Fresno,The Scientific Method (a freshmen level critical thinking course consisting of two sections with 75 students each) and in Qualitative Research Methods, a senior level methods course with 35 students
Does this case have an answer key: