Coffee, Tea and Me

One of the questions I get asked a lot by people new to food storage and local eating is "But what about my COFFEE!!!???"  Unless you are fortunate enough to live in a coffee-growing region, (which a majority of my readers don't) local coffee ain't gonna happen - and while chicory has its adherents, I'm told it isn't the same (Eric and I are actually among the very few people we know who went through graduate school without ever getting addicted to coffee ;-)).  Neither will true tea (herb teas can be produced almost everywhere), vanilla, many tropical spice, citrus, olive oil, etc... for many of us.  So what's a person committed to reducing the impact of their food to do?

Well, there's a lot of good news on this front, but it requires that we make an important distinction about foods shipped long distance - whether they are "wet" or "dry."  Foods that are dry have had most of the water extracted from them by dehydration, natural or otherwise.  Grains, most legumes, spices, dry herbs, coffee and tea are all shipped this way for the most part.  "Wet" foods are everything else - whenever the foods are not dried in some way, but are shipped with their natural waters in them.

The difference is important because water is heavy.  Moreover, before their water is removed, most foods are delicate and easily subject to spoilage.  Consider the weight and shipping challenges of a tree full of ripe apricots and a tree full of dried ones.  The former weighs many times more, requires more shipping space, faster shipping, refrigerated shipping and much more careful shipping.  The same apricots, dried, take up 1/20th of the space, weigh about 1/20th as much (and use approximately that much energy to ship), do not require refrigeration, do not require special packing to prevent bruising, and there's no huge rush in getting them there.  Most of the energy being used to transport apricots (or anything else wet) is being used to transport water.

Now there's nothing like the taste of a fresh apricot, but the reality is that all of us have to ask whether the price of transporting a fresh apricot across the world is worth it to us.  Perhaps we can grow more apricots locally, or get them from closer in, or simply do without them and enjoy fruit that does well.

Coffee, tea and spices, however, are shipped dry, and consumed in comparatively small volumes per person.  365 tea bags per person weighs about a pound and a half (and would weigh less if you used loose tea) - even someone like me, a tea junkie, drinks less than 5lbs of tea a year, all shipped dry.  I use my spices with a liberal hand, but a quarter lb of nutmeg will do my household for a good long time.

If we assume that all international shipping is never going to stop (and world trade has been going on for thousands of years, so I think that's a fairly safe assumption), then we should think about what kind of trade is most environmentally responsible.  Coffee, tea and spices, shipped dry, represent high-value crops that impoverished areas of the world can use to bring dollars from richer places, without undue environmental impact.   Buying from cooperatives or fair trade certified organizations that ensure that money goes to the grower, rather than the middle-man is really a key point here, as is focusing on the kinds of agricultural practices that matter.  Supporting the kind of small scale, integrated and diversified agriculture that you want to see in the world is something worth doing, so buying shade grown coffee from small growers is a good thing.

By and large, you don't have to feel too guilty about your morning cuppa. That glass of orange juice, however, is probably considerably more problematic.   If you do live in a cold climate and want to make changes that have an impact, start there - switch to a cup of tea, herb tea, coffee, local cider...




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Where did you find 1/20th dried to fresh apricot ratio? Most places I looked say 20% which is 1/5th.

Spices were early long distance trade items, maybe they will be the last.

I've been more conscious of where my food is grown since I started reading your blog and books. Sadly, most apples I find in the grocery stores here are from Washington state and most citrus from California. And there are abandoned orange groves all over this area :( I've thought about sneaking into them and gathering oranges (they never get harvested) but they have no trespassing signs posted and I haven't been brave enough yet.

By Sandra Wilson (not verified) on 07 Dec 2012 #permalink

Never mind coffee, what about chocolate?!?!?!?

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 07 Dec 2012 #permalink

I'm curious about the chocolate as well. I suspect that falls into the "high value to weight ratio" category--at least I hope it's the case!

1/20th was meant to refer to the requirements of packing and shipping - packing delicate fresh apricots for shipping requires a lot of heavy and complicated packaging to keep them separate and not bruised - so it requires more than the 1/5 or 1/7 (depending on how far you dry them) ration of one fresh apricot (remember also pits are removed with adds more weight) to one dried. It wasn't meant to be a comment on the actual water removed by dehydration.

Chocolate is kind of a mid-point. It certainly has high psychological value, and cocoa powder is a very efficient thing to transport. Milk or dark chocolate somewhat less so, but unless you are eating tons of it, it isn't that big a deal. On the other hand, many of us do eat more than our share ;-).

This falls into line with an observation I made a while back. After an expensive move, I figured that if an item values less than 50 cents / pound to replace, then I better think several times about packing it with me. The target number is likely closer to a dollar today.

I hadn't considered, but it does make sense to replace things at the arrival end with used or second hand furniture and things first, then locally made items.

"Putting on the dog" or other forms of conspicuous consumption are something the wealthy can indulge in. And it seldom works to support local industry and crafts.

But then there is the bigger question about moving to follow the (ca$h) job, rather than supporting and nurturing your neighborhood and community, and building toward a less affluent future. "Uncle Sam Wants You", and so does industry, because new faces entering the work force keep the (formal, ca$h) economy working. But there is no investment in the community when people's lives are diverted like that.

When considering whether something is okay to ship long distances, either now, or in the future, I've often thought that if it could be profitably shipped 200 to 300 years ago, that's probably something we will still be able to ship on an intercontinental basis in a impoverished future world, but frightfully, that category would include human chattel as well (%$!)
I take that thought as a very serious and sober warning.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 07 Dec 2012 #permalink

"the very few people we know who went through graduate school without ever getting addicted to coffee."

You can add me. Never touched the stuff, college or grad school. Only after we started building our house, and I needed to keep going... I blame Spouse, she pushed me.

Delighted to see you are capable of rationalizing otherwise indefensible positions when it involves something you simply lust after. : - ) How human! I'd been worried, as you know.

I'm perfectly willing to accept your rationalizations, and will add my own fantasy; which is that in the near future, such relatively imperishable commodities as coffee, tea, and cocoa will be increasingly shipped via - sail. Why not? There's already wine shipped by sail available.

Incidentally; for those interested in alternatives- there's the Kentucky Coffee Tree. You'll be interested to know; I've been actively searching for decades- and while it's very easy to find instructions for making "coffee" from the KCT- I've never- ever- been able to find a person who has DONE it; or even a first-person narrative from someone who ever did. And when you dig, the authoritative instructions vary wildly.

i am a serious tea-lover. caffiene is good and i use about 8 to 10 tea bags worth a day. good or bad for me? don't know. but i have thot about how i would get my "fix" if petro transport get too expensive. to that end, i have planted a "sochi" tea plant. now we are in zone 7+ here in nw oregon, so the climate occsionally dips into the teens. the little bush has been in the ground for over a year now and has grown but not as much as i had hoped. i don't think it will be able to support my current level of tea use, but could supply a useful amount of caffeine. i'm reading up on harvesting and fermenting the leaves, just in case i have a useable harvest next year. :-D
aside from that, our family really promotes eating locally, seasonally, and sustainably.our idea of a local diet is 50% from within 50 miles, 95% from within 500 miles and 5% from anywhere. in practice, the townhouse backyard garden and the community garden plot and the farmers market/csa take care of most of the fresh produce and the fruits and veggies i can, freeze and dry. dairy, chicken and fish are local. beef, grains and dry legumes are regional. that allows spices, coffee/tea, and orange juice to come from where ever they must.
funny, i read above about the fla woman who finds calif oj in her market. we find fla oj here, not any calif, and lots from brazil/mexico. we always but usa oj from fla, but would prefer to get calif.

The nice thing about tea is that most of it can be grown right here in the U.S., so shipping from abroad can be reduced or eliminated. A lot of tea bushes will survive all the way through zone 7 (6 with protection), which means they can be grown as far north as Tennessee and on the west coast. We may have tea farms in this country again in 50 years. Who knows?

Speaking of Citrus, there are some citrus that can handle mild freezes, so they may be able to grow in a larger area than one might expect. There's one guy I know locally who has a calamondin and a lime plant outside in a pot right now and they are still alive and look as if they are doing ok. I'm growing limes, but I've got my lime seedlings indoors on a window sill. They are a fun experiment for me, but also I adore various citrus and it would sadden me to go without them if I don't have to.

On a more practical note, I also have strawberries and access to assorted other fruit and small fruit.

Many plants can also be grown in colder climates than they're meant for it they have the right microclimate. We're in zone 7, and my stepfather-in-law has a bay tree that's getting close to a decade old. It isn't supposed to live north of zone 9. It is planted in a raised bed on the south side of their brick house. It's just as happy as can be. While not a large-scale solution, such tricks could help us grow herbs, spices, and some exotic fruits that we might not otherwise be able to get during the coming disruptions.

We Gave up the orange juice years ago, I usually have a pot of weak black tea with goat milk for warming everyone up in the morning. I dont think she is justifying her own habits, coffee doesnt weigh much and tea hardly anything at all. Tea can be grown in many areas of the continental US, and Coffee in Hawaii which is part of the US. My kids are realy craving citrus right now, and it is grown in our county, my house is a bit too cold, but I am mostly keeping them on our homegrown fruit until it runs out, pipin apples, dried persimmon and someone from town traded in some pineapple guavas for persimmons last night -- so a bit of a change.

By Debi Baker (not verified) on 19 Dec 2012 #permalink