Like many 20 year olds, I have drunk my fair share of coffee. With an average intake of two coffees a day and a love of coffee that reaches back to my early teens, I have a fairly ‘typical’ relationship with the beverage. And I am not alone. Students across the country are familiar with the smell, taste and effects of the drink. A friend in those late hours of essay writing, a wake-up call before a lecture or an excuse for a mid-day break, coffee impacts our day in one way or another. Coffee shops dominate the streets of Oxford and coffee bags fill the shelves of supermarkets. Countless coffees are made, sipped and discussed every day. That is, 1.6 billion cups to be precise. These include over sixty different types of coffee beverages, from the classic Espresso to the more adventurous Dirty Chai or Zebra Mocha, all coming from a number of different countries. The crop grows over a wide-range of agro-ecological zones and standardised coffee blends may be a mix of as many as twenty different coffee types. Is it surprising then that coffee ranks as the second most traded commodity after oil or that it is the third most popular global beverage after water and tea?

But the impact of coffee extends far beyond cafés, kitchen counters and student desks. Tied to the economies of countless countries and employing millions of workers, it comes as no surprise that coffee plays such an important economic, social and political role, on a global as well as local scale. Due to its economic and agricultural potential as well as its unpredictable prices and large quantities, coffee holds a critical yet tenuous place within international markets. This crop has influenced the lives, habitats and environments of many species for centuries. Human societies across North and Central America, South America, Africa and Asia have been dictated by this cash crop. The beans are often cultivated in countries which face some of the more severe development challenges in the world. As Anthony Wild wrote, ‘tropical countries produce it and rich countries drink it.  A result of colonial rule, this risky crop continues to touch the economies and livelihoods of millions well after the end of the British Empire.

As I found out this summer, India has a decisive role to play in this equation. It is the 5th biggest global producer of coffee beans, employing over 3 million workers. Though domestic consumption is surprisingly low in the country itself, it comprises 23 per cent of the national economy and there is a 100 per cent growth rate every year. Most importantly, 95 per cent of Indian coffee is shade-grown and carbon neutral. There are close to 250,000 growers in India, of which 98 per cent are small farmers, cultivating on less than 10 hectares. 400 million tonnes of coffee is produced for the government every year and a productive estate would generate an average of ½ tonne per acre. Unfortunately, however, with a rise in urbanisation, fluctuating coffee prices, inadequate government policies and widespread poverty, attitudes are changing and growers are favouring large-scale, cleared and mechanised farms. As a country with a fairly limited environmental agenda and a fairly unknown coffee producing industry, the future looks bleak for many of India’s coffee forests.