Environmentally Conscious Coffee: A beginner’s guide to organic, shade grown and fair trade coffee beans

Flickr photo courtesy of brocktopia.

Legend has it that an Ethiopian Goat herder named Kaldi became concerned when his goats began to dance about.  Upon following the goats and observing their diets, the Fred Astaire impersonations came after they consumed the cherries off of a particular kind of bush.

The Coffee Revolution had begun.

Coffee was declared a Christian beverage by the pope, and coffee spread throughout the world. Coffee Houses, called “Penny Universities” became the place for the great thinkers to gather and exchange ideas.  Coffee started to replace alcoholic drink as a safe beverage which many historians believe helped to fuel the industrial revolution.

But there are problems. Initially coffee bushes were grown under the canopy of trees so that they didn’t interfere with the natural habitat of birds and other animals.  As coffee spread across the world and the demand grew coffee plants were developed that would produce coffee faster with more sunlight which meant cutting down the trees.  In addition, more fertilizer and pesticides were used to produce the maximum yield; especially on large corporate farms.

In response there is a movement by many to purchase only shade grown or “bird friendly” coffee.  While shade grown coffee plantations may not provide the natural habitat that the forests do they are a vast improvement over full sun plantations.  Some people prefer the taste of shad grown coffee as well.

The coffee world is a confusing place to the socially and environmentally conscious consumer. It would seem at first that the simple thing to do would be to buy only fair trade, organic, shade grown coffee.  And there’s nothing really wrong with that in itself.

But because it’s human nature to ad piles of bureaucracy to every good idea we now have responsible coffee growers who pay their employees well and act as their own brokers who cannot get certified as fair trade because they aren’t a co-op.  We have poor family run coffee farms who although they are using only organic methods of coffee productions the cost associated with getting certified is more than their yearly income.  And we have farms that have are grown on land naturally devoid of trees that can’t be certified as shade grown but are still home to poor farmers who have families to feed with their coffee crop.

Rather than solely relying on certifications by companies that sometimes hurt poor family farmers with these unintended consequences, the best thing you can do is stop in and talk to your local roaster. Many roasters take great pains to only buy from responsible farms and brokers. Most of them are happy to find customers who are concerned enough to ask these questions. And you get to spend your money with a local business at the same time.

If you can’t find a roaster like that, then you can always fall back on those labels.