“We purchase beans from farms that reject pesticides and utilize sustainable practices.”
Bird Rock Coffee Roasters
Sustainable farming refers to farming strategies that support three ideals: Environmental Health, Economic Profitability, Social and Economic Equity. Bird Rock Coffee Roasters works with farmers and growers that work sustainably in order to reduce the negative impacts of large scale farming.
Coffee comes from a plant, and in order to produce enough coffee for everybody who drinks it farmers need to grow lots and lots of coffee. Because of the amount of plants needed, many farmers will use techniques to reduce the amount of plants lost and work needed to maintain them. Unfortunately many of these energy saving techniques don’t really save energy, they just take it from somewhere else.
For example all plants need nitrogen to grow because it is used in important molecules such as ATP and DNA. Nitrogen is only released into soil by bacteria when decomposing organic matter. Plant growth is limited by how much organic matter is in the soil and how quickly it is being decomposed. If the same land is used again and again for food production there will be a shortage of nitrogen. Rather than wait for bacteria to break down organic material, humans have figured out how to create ammonia (NH3) by combining nitrogen and hydrogen found in the atmosphere which can be added to soil to support plant growth. Unfortunately the process is very energy intensive, and the energy required is typically produced in unsustainable ways. In terms of energy transfer it is like growing food with gasoline rather than solar energy.
A more sustainable approach to supplying nitrogen to plants would involve protecting and feeding the bacteria that release it into the soil. When organic matter (and the nitrogen contained within it) is harvested from a plot of land it must be replaced by more organic matter, such as compost or mulch.
Large scale growers use supplemental nitrogen because it is cheaper and keeps costs down. The only way to offset this and still pay workers is to charge more for the final product. A typical bag of coffee from Bird Rock Coffee costs about $17, where most coffee in large grocery stores can be less than $10.
“Eco-Products® 'Grasp the Moment' PLA bioplastic lined Hot Cups are made with renewable materials and are both ASTM D6400 and EN 13432 [AS4736 when available] certified commercially compostable.”
Detpak (BRCR Supplier)
Life and living organisms produce waste. In a balanced ecosystem waste material is broken down to its smallest parts to be reused by other organisms. If one organism produces lots of wastes and the waste cannot be broken down easily the ecosystem will become unbalanced.
Plastic is a human-made material that does not break down within a human lifetime. Single use plastic products are designed to be used once and discarded leading to an excess of waste. Take away coffee cups are coated with plastic in order to be waterproof. The cups that Bird Rock Coffee uses are made with a type of plastic that is more easily decomposed.
Usually, plastic is made from natural gas and oil. Natural gas and oil are created when organic material is compressed under huge pressure inside the earth. It contains large amounts of energy and carbon. Extracting and collecting oil and natural gas contributes to climate change. Producing plastic is an energy intensive process requiring high heat and pressure. The result is a material that can take centuries to decompose and may never fully return to its original hydrocarbon composition.
Polylactic Acid (PLA) plastic is made from a different source: corn. Rather than being made of hydrocarbons mined from the earth, PLA is made of polymers derived from corn sugars. Bacteria and enzymes are used to break down the sugar from the corn into lactide molecules which combine to form long chain polymers. Fibers made of these polymers can be melted and formed into shapes like any other plastic.
The major advantage of PLA plastic over typical plastics is PLA can be composted. Composting is a natural process where matter is recycled and broken down into it’s constituent parts. PLA is considered to be commercially compostable under the correct conditions, including elevated temperatures that can typically be found in large compost piles. One such commercial composting facility exists in San Diego. However if not treated properly it will not decompose so PLA products must be disposed of correctly in order to take advantage of this feature.
Bird Rock Coffee Roasters sells their coffee in cups that are lined with PLA plastic instead of typical plastic so that their cups have the potential to be composted. Additionally the bags that their coffee beans are sold in are also lined with this material in order to reduce the impact of waste generated from their company.
Up to 80% fuel-savings and reduction of greenhouse gases in every roast, compared to conventional roasters.
Loring Coffee Roasters (used by BRCR)
Before being brewed into a cup of coffee, coffee beans need to be roasted. The green seeds harvested and dried from a coffee plant are heated to a high temperature for about 10 minutes. The heat will change the chemical composition of the bean and carmelize sugars that are present. One bean can be roasted in many different ways by varying the length of the roast and the heat applied. A dark roast coffee will result from longer roasting times, high temperatures, or both. Shorter roasting times and lower temperatures yield lighter roasts.
Most of Bird Rock coffees are light to medium roasts. This is because beans lose their unique flavors the longer and hotter they are roasted. Since so much care is used in selecting delicious and well grown beans for their coffee it makes sense that Bird Rock would want to preserve as much of that quality as possible. It is also true that darker roasts would require more energy to produce but I doubt that this is a major factor in this roaster’s decision to produce mostly lighter roasts.
The Loring coffee roaster used by Bird Rock Coffee Roasters heats beans through convection, which means beans are placed in a chamber with hot air swirling around. The Loring machine used by BRCR is advertised as being capable of roasting 600 tons of coffee annually. In order to heat the chamber and roast coffee again and again energy is required. However, this machine has a feature that saves energy and reduces the amount of particulate smoke that exits the machine; a smoke incinerator. It works like this. Hot air coming out of the roasting chamber is directed past the burner in the machine. By recycling air that has already been warmed the roaster doesn’t need to fully heat as much fresh air which also saves energy.When reheated, the smoke in the exhaust air is incinerated, reducing waste that is released into the air. Incineration is a common waste to energy technique used in large industries, so it is interesting to see it used here as well.
A single cup of coffee requires a lot of energy to be prepared and I appreciate that BRCR does what is possible to reduce the total amount of energy consumed in the production of my coffee.
“The farms we buy from have made strides in water-conserving de-pulping methods, introduced symbiotic relationships with nutrient-enhancing organisms, and created self-sustaining systems.”
Bird Rock Coffee Roasters
Symbiosis is a term that describes a relationship between two organic lifeforms. If both organisms benefit from the relationship it is called mutualism. Sometimes only one organism benefits from the symbiosis and the other is unaffected; this is called commensalism. The other types of symbiotic relationships, predation, parasitism and competition, describe situations in which one organism is harmed by the other. Specific information about the symbiotic relationships that Bird Rock Coffee Roasters’ coffee growers use is not immediately available, but I doubt they would advertise the use of parasitism or something negative like that.
In sustainable agriculture, symbiotic relationships exist primarily between fungi in the ground and plants. In this mutualistic relationship the plants gain drought tolerance from the fungi in a surprising way; the fungi seem to influence the hormonal levels of the plants. Some of these hormones reduce evaporation of water at the level of the stomata of the plants, resulting in a plant that requires less water. The fungi in turn gain carbohydrates from the plant which provide energy for their metabolic processes.
Mutualistic and commensal relationships between plants often result in more tolerant and resilient ecosystems because each organism is supported by others. If one organism receives metabolic energy from multiple sources then the loss of one source will not have as great an effect. Some organisms receive a practical service such as protection from the symbiosis which helps them better thrive in inconsistent conditions than without.
In typical large scale, industrial farming, only one crop or organism is grown at a time. In extreme examples that crop is genetically modified to be resistant to herbicides and pesticides that are deployed to eliminate all other organisms from the field. This type of monoculture farming is very susceptible to changes in the environment and the crops are not resilient. If a new pest is introduced or the environment of the farm is changed the crop will likely not have the resources to adapt. Indeed this is part of the profitability of such crops because companies that produce and sell them benefit from environmental changes when farmers need to buy new seeds and new crop treatments in response to threats.