Coffee and the Environment

CC Photo courtesy of usfwsnortheast. The Reserve coffee farm in Columbia.

Coffee is one of the world’s most popular commodities. It is traded more than all other commodities, except for crude oil. With such a high demand and so much production going on throughout the world, the coffee industry has the potential to significantly impact our environment. Indeed, in the last several decades, the effects of the coffee industry have been substantial.

Pollution and deforestation have been problems, and recent evidence suggests that deforestation of tropical regions — the primary coffee growing centers — causes more climate change than all of our automobiles combined. This realization is leading to dramatic changes in the way coffee is grown.

A Move to Sustainable Coffee Growing Practices

Not long ago, the demand for coffee was so great that it fueled a frenzy of non-sustainable coffee production. Instead of growing coffee under the forest canopy as it was traditionally grown, coffee plantations began to clear-cut the forests to make way for full sun coffee plantations. Although these full sun plantations required large quantities of fertilizers and pesticides, they could produce more coffee than shade grown operations.

Unfortunately, these plantations, which are still the most common type of plantation, led to chemical pollution of delicate ecosystems and the destruction of habitat for countless species. Worse still, the coffee they produced was tainted with residual chemicals, the work conditions were often unethical, and the contribution to global warming unthinkable.

Environmentally conscious farmers began to move toward the proven shade grown coffee plantations, which integrated coffee plants into forests. Clear cut land was reforested to create shade grown operations, and organic, chemical-free coffees became more common. Although these farmers are still in the minority, they are leading the coffee industry in a positive direction.

Carbon Offsets and Coffee Production

The growing climate crisis has made the practice of deforestation in the name of profit an unthinkable thing to do. Yet, without proper incentive, coffee plantations are slow to move to more sustainable systems. Fortunately, carbon offsets provide a much needed motivation.

Organizations like Conservation International have been working with farmers over the last decade to encourage environmentally conscious practices though the sale of carbon offsets. By giving farmers a potential monetary incentive to cultivate forests alongside coffee farms, farmers can still make a profit while helping to combat our climate crisis.

Over the last several years, even Starbucks has joined the cause and begun to promote forest conservation. It is now possible to purchase coffee from major retailers that contributes to reforestation instead of deforestation. This is good news for consumers and for the environment. As consumers, we can help fight deforestation by purchasing sustainable coffees, which encourages shade grown coffee plantations.

For more information on Starbucks conservation program check this link out.

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