Why is Beanless Coffee?
Coffee-less coffee is marketed as the sustainable solution to the climate crisis. But is it? And what about the farmers who will be left behind?
If coffee is under threat from climate change (and it clearly is), what is the solution? How do we confront an unpredictably shifting and warming climate, while mitigating its causes and protecting the people most vulnerable to its effects?
That’s a hard question. Much easier to answer a different question, to just remove the coffee entirely. Welcome to beanless coffee.
Over the past few years, millions of dollars of venture capital funding have poured into products that promise all the benefits of coffee—the taste, the caffeine, the cachet—with none of the pesky carbon-heavy drawbacks of the supply chain.
Atomo Coffee is the most well-known, but there’s a new one about to hit the market: Minus Coffee.
This article had been in the pipeline for a while, but was pushed to the top due to a marketing email I was sent from Minus. This isn’t just another beanless coffee beverage, you see. This company is different.
The product, the pitch said, is “a beanless approach that protects coffee ritual, farmer livelihood, and our precious planet. Minus produces coffee with less water, less environmental damage, and shorter supply chains.”
Protects farmer livelihood. A canned cold brew-like product, made without coffee by a company brimming with VC funding and headquartered in San Francisco, claims to want to protect farmer livelihood.
If Minus’ website is to be believed, coffee is both doomed by the climate crisis—and also a major cause of it. “It's time to get brutally honest,” the homepage reads. “Coffee is accelerating and suffering from climate change.”
Minus highlights the extent of the problem with some fun facts like “coffee production leads to soil degradation, habitat destruction and deforestation”. Which is… true, technically, although as we’ll see it’s also rather disingenuous.
Atomo’s pitch also wants you to view coffee as a fundamentally destructive force that is destroying the earth. In a gushing Bloomberg profile last year, co-founder Jarret Stopforth says, while comparing his company to Tesla (!), “before Atomo, if you wanted coffee that wasn’t linked to deforestation, you had no choice. Now you do.”
But of course you absolutely have a choice. Not all coffee production is created equal—giant full-sun monocrop farms are obviously harmful to the planet, whether it’s coffee or corn or cattle.
However there are millions of producers across the globe who carefully and sustainably produce phenomenal coffee on tiny plots—with a correspondingly miniscule carbon footprint. Sustainable coffee farming practices mean some farms can even act as carbon sinks.
Not to mention, there are somewhere between 12.5 and 25 million coffee farmers worldwide. The majority rely solely on coffee to feed their families, and a large percentage live in poverty or extreme poverty.
Companies like Atomo and Minus, by their very existence, will take sales away from those farmers.
Of course, they have a plan. Minus, for example, claims to be “partnering with an organization to help farmers transition into agroforestry systems” which will “provide them with a higher income per pound of product.”
Just Asking Questions
I replied to Minus, asking how exactly they planned to protect farmer livelihoods, and which organization they were partnering with to achieve their goals.
I heard back from founder and CEO, Maricel Sanez, who told me that, “with Minus, we are giving farmers 1% of our revenue to finance the transition into agroforestry and intercropping systems.”
Sanez wouldn’t say which organization Minus is partnering with for this transition, just that it would be announced during the beta launch (which has come and gone with no announcement).
Atomo’s Head of Growth, Ed Hoehn, was similarly diplomatic when I got in touch with some similar questions. He pointed out that demand for coffee is predicted to increase over the coming years.
“If we are successful in capturing 1-2% share in the industry we are doing no harm to coffee farmers as we are within the margin of growth for the industry as a whole,” Hoehn said. “We are simply addressing the rise in demand the coffee industry will inevitably struggle to keep up with.”
Like Minus, Hoehn also mentioned deforestation as a justification for his company’s existence.
If a Tree Falls
It is true that coffee contributes to deforestation worldwide, mostly commodity-grade but also some specialty. It does, however, have some competition—commercial beef, soy, palm oil, cocoa, and rubber all contributed more to global deforestation than coffee from 2001 to 2015. (In fact, pasture for cattle replaced nearly twice as much forest as all other commodities combined.)
And again, the vast majority of environmentally-destructive practices are caused by large-scale monocrop coffee farming, not the smallholder producers who are associated with specialty coffee. In fact, one study even found that arabica coffee cultivation actually slowed down deforestation because it can be grown using shade trees.
Notably, it’s specialty coffee that the beanless coffee companies’ marketing tries to emulate, using similar language and visuals to advertise their beverages.
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I keep coming back to this same basic question: why?
Why spend millions of dollars developing, producing, and selling a product that doesn’t really need to exist?
Of course, there’s an obvious answer—venture capital firms don’t get involved in businesses for the fun of it.
There are a thousand ways VC money could be better spent if the goal was really to help tackle climate change in the coffee industry. But those don’t have a return on investment, at least monetarily.
Confronting the climate crisis, and coffee’s role within it, is a huge, complex and increasingly urgent issue. It will take cooperation between governments, private companies, and individual actors, as well as massive investment with long term vision and no expectation of return. What it doesn’t need is yet another new product with bold claims and not much substance.
Beanless coffee is the answer to a question nobody asked.
(This article was inspired in part by Sprudge’s excellent coverage of Atomo. I highly recommend checking out their work.)