Food and Cuisine

Published on December 17th, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans


Coffee: Green Your Morning Caffeine

Mmm, coffee.  Far from being just another drink choice, it is truly a worldwide institution—and obsession.  Because it is consumed in such mass qualities throughout the globe, the choices as to how coffee is grown, manufactured, and ultimately consumed have a major potential impact on both the world economy and the global environment.

Drinking green coffee—and by ‘green’ we mean that derived from organic, shade-grown and fair trade certified coffee beans—ensures that farmers and the environment also get a little “green” for their resources and efforts.

A world commodity second only to oil, coffee has sparked quite a bit of controversy throughout its history.  At different times since its documented debut in the 9th century, coffee has been both embraced as a sacred ceremonial substance and banned as a cursed and heathen-ish drink.  Despite its turbulent history, coffee has also played a complex and vital role in the development of society as we know it.  Without the caffeinated benefits of its stimulating effect, we might have never come to know the joys of the coffee house or café–places that foster a sense of community and inspire the sharing of knowledge and collective wisdom, where people from all walks of life congregate for conversation or debate.

image credit DeusXFloridaCup of Coffee

Cup of Coffee

Recently, coffee has once again become the focus of much controversy surrounding fair trade and fair labor practices.  Coffee is grown in more than 60 countries, mostly on small family farms.  27 million acres of the planet’s coffee-cultivation farmland support somewhere between 25 and 100 million people around the world.  Until the 1970’s, most coffee farmers used sustainable agricultural techniques to grow coffee, planting their crops in the shade of native forests and using a minimal amount of chemicals and fertilizers.

When coffee crops are planted in the shade of overstory trees, they reap the benefits of natural nutrients provided by leaves that fall to the ground and decay, creating a nitrogen-rich mulch over the soil.  The shade forests also provide a habitat for diverse species of native birds and animals.  Fueled by the North American craze for specialty coffee in the early 1970’s, increased demand resulted in a production explosion to the detriment of farmers practicing traditional coffee growing methods.  The rush to increase production led to a shift from shade-growing practices to sun cultivation.

When coffee crops are planted in the shade of overstory trees, they reap the benefits of natural nutrients provided by leaves that fall to the ground and decay, creating a nitrogen-rich mulch over the soil.

The Trouble with Sun Cultivation

Growing coffee crops in the sun is far more profitable for farmers—crops can be planted over a wider area and coffee berries ripen much faster with the sun’s exposure.  Though a very financially profitable technique, sun cultivation brings numerous drawbacks–primarily, the method threatens the survival of farms in developing countries.  In addition, the accelerated growth factor promotes more frequent and more crowded planting which exhausts the soil, and the earth may take centuries to repair from these effects.  Conversion to sun-grown coffee practices in Mexico, Columbia, Central America, Latin America, and the Caribbean has resulted in mass deforestation over the last two decades.  This has caused a devastating loss of biodiversity for the species of trees and plants that were destroyed, and for the bird and animal species that formerly inhabited them.

Sun plantations are also more difficult to maintain than shade plantations because crops lack the natural nitrogen provided by dead leaves from the forest canopy, and sun-grown crops must then be chemically fertilized.  More pesticides and herbicides are also needed in the absence of avian predators to control pests, and the lack of mulch and shade from overhead trees to minimize weed growth.  The soil on a sun plantation also gets greater exposure to the elements, contributing to problems with erosion and pollution of local watersheds.

Consequences to the Industry

Another serious consequence of the industrialization of the coffee production process negatively affects the industry itself.  Sun plantations produce higher yields of cheap coffee beans, which flood the market and drive the price of coffee down.  Coffee is worth just a quarter of its value of 30 years ago, and the price for coffee paid directly to farmers diminishes each year.  One decade ago, countries received about one-third of every dollar spent on coffee; now they see less than a dime.

Judging from the meager prices that non-organic coffees fetch for farmers today, it isn’t difficult to see why organic farmers cannot compete in the coffee marketplace.  One recent study reports that sun-cultivated coffee fields in Kenya are largely harvested by women and their children, while the men spray coffee trees with pesticides for a duration of six to eleven hours per day.  Though the U.S.  has banned certain agrochemicals for agricultural use, some still make their way into the coffee that is imported to the U.S.

Fair Trade Coffee

Fair Trade CoffeeFair trade is a movement focused on instilling a system of equity on the price of exports from developing countries to developed countries.  Fair trade’s intent is to secure the trading rights for economically disadvantaged workers around the world so that they receive fair prices for their products.

Aggressive consumer demand for fair trade coffees grown by natural methods is the most effective way to combat the multitudinous negative environmental and humanitarian consequences of current practices.  The American nation is the coffee industry’s most ardent supporter–Americans consume 400 million cups of coffee a day!  It’s not hard to see why the U.S.  dollars spent on sustainable coffee can make a huge difference.

Supporting businesses that purchase coffee grown in fair trade and fair labor environments sends a message to the entire industry, letting them know that exploiting labor and our earth’s resources really does not “pay.” When you buy Fair-Trade Certified coffee, more of your money goes directly to the farmers who cultivated it.  We can increase our voice as consumers by seeking out options for shade-grown, fairly-traded, sustainable, and organic coffees.  Choosing to invest our dollars in a sustainable future will provide incentive for small farmers to resume the practice of responsible methods and procedures aimed at ensuring the future health and productivity of farmland, and the people who cultivate it.

Green Coffee Options

Though the fair-trade network is today’s fastest growing segment of the specialty coffee industry, the supply of fair trade coffee still far outweighs its demand.  Whenever possible look for coffee that is triple certified–as fair trade, organic, and shade-grown.  The North American Center for Environmental Cooperation provides a current online certification database that lists all certification programs for organic, shade-grown, and/or fair trade coffee products.  TransFair USA provides a database of fair trade brands and national stores that sell them.  Keep in mind that most fair trade certified coffees are also organic but are not necessarily shade grown.  In addition, the current labeling practices for shade grown products leave a lot of latitude for interpretation.  Also remember that certification is costly, and thus not all sustainable coffees carry a certified seal. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center seal and the 100% Rainforest Alliance-certified seal are other labels which indicate that your coffee has been grown and processed in compliance with strict eco-friendly standards.

Each sustainable coffee bean we buy helps to promote fair prices and a stable market for farmers and their farms.  Every pound of rich and fragrant organic coffee purchased helps to keep dangerous chemicals from saturating our earth, in efforts to preserve the biodiversity of our planet’s fragile ecosystems.  I’ll drink a cup to that!

Article Contributors: Julie Reid

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