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.

Benefits of Buying Fair Trade Coffee

CC Flickr photo courtesy of nagillum. La Pita coffee plantation in Matagalpa, Nicaragua

Ever wonder about fair trade coffee and why it might matter?

Second only to crude oil, coffee is the most traded commodity on earth. Like other booming industries of trade, the potential for abuse is great, and over the years, we have seen a number of unfortunate side effects of the coffee trade. These include a number of environmental effects, human rights violations, risks to consumers, and negative impacts to communities around the world. But we can make a difference by buying fair trade coffee.

What is Fair Trade Coffee?

Fair trade certification promotes healthy work conditions by giving growers an economic incentive for using good practices. For certifications, coffee growers must join a coop, which determines the minimum amount paid to growers and how any excess profits will be spent. These premiums often go back to growers or are spent on education or community development to improve conditions in coffee growing countries.

Fair Trade Benefits Human Rights

When you buy fair trade coffee, you know that you aren’t contributing to human rights violations. Many coffee plantations, which are not fair trade, provide work conditions that aren’t healthy or fair for works. Child labor has been a common problem with coffee plantations. But fair trade agreements allow workers to be paid wages that are appropriate while ensuring that work conditions are reasonable.

Environmental Impact of Fair Trade Coffee

Fair trade agreements foster informed growing practices, which lead to more responsible coffee plantations. Often fair trade coffee is grown on full shade plantations, which have a positive impact on the environment, especially compared to the more common full sun plantations, which lead to deforestation. And deforestation of our tropical regions is a major factor in global warming.

Fair trade coffee is often organic, which reduces environmental issues with the potential misuse of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. This theoretically can result in a healthier coffee for consumers, because it hasn’t been sprayed with anything.

Coffee that is grown without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, has a more positive effect on the surrounding community and on the plantations workers. (And on the pests and weeds too, ha ha.)  In countries where pesticide and fertilizer usage is hardly regulated, heavy chemical use can potentially lead to chemical poisoning of workers and potential negative health consequences of those living in the surrounding area.

Fair Trade Coffee: More Expensive?

If you pay attention to prices when you shop, then you’ve probably noticed that fair trade coffee seems to cost a little more than “regular” coffee. But the fact is, regular coffee comes with hidden costs to farmers and to whole communities around the world.

What’s your favorite fair trade coffee? Leave a comment!

Organic Coffee Facts

CC Flickr photo courtesy of blindedbythebite.
Why drink organic coffee? Consider these facts.
If you’re like most people, then coffee probably plays a prominent role in your life.  Indeed, we collectively consume 2.5 billion cups of coffee each day!  But not all that coffee is good for us or for the environment.
Non organic coffee is grown with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and its production can wreck havoc on sensitive ecosystems when grown incorrectly.  Although organic coffee is now an alternative available to consumers, most people still don’t drink it.  Here are a few facts on coffee production and how it impacts our environment:
  • Coffee evolved under the rainforest canopy.  Although coffee started out as a shade-loving shrub, the high demand for coffee led to full-sun plantations, which required large quantities of fertilizers and pesticides.
  • Full-sun coffee plantations lead to deforestation.  37 of the 50 countries with the highest rates of deforestation are coffee producers.  The top 25 coffee exporters lost an average of 27 thousand square miles of forest annually during the end of the twentieth century.
  • Non-organic coffee often leads to habitat loss.   Coffee grown under full sun does not supply adequate habitat for native species.  Indeed, full sun coffee plantations provide habitat  for 90% fewer species than do shade-grown coffee plantations.
  • Organic shade grown coffee combats global warming.  Shade grown coffee plantations include a diverse array of tree species that provide a shade-giving canopy over coffee plants.  These coffee plantations add oxygen to the environment while removing greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.
  • A study conducted in the late eighties found that coffee plantations in Central America polluted more than 29 million gallons of water daily.  This is the equivalent of a city with 4 million citizens dumping their sewage into the local rivers day after day.  Today’s eco-friendly organic farms use less water and make an effort to dispose of it properly.
  • Despite the effects of non-organic coffee production, the vast majority of coffee is non-organic.  Indeed, in 2006 not even one percent of the total coffee consumed was organic.
  • In Colombia, a coffee supplier which has mostly full sun coffee plantations, more than 440,000 tons of chemical fertilizers are applied to coffee crops.
  • Consumers who buy organic do make a difference.  Although few plantations are organic, shade grown, or fair trade, the higher market value of these coffees  encourages more farmers to revert to environmentally friendly farming.  Even Starbucks has begun to support forest conservation.
The next time you grab a cup of coffee, consider whether it is organic or not.  The  environmental impact of improperly cultivated coffee is simply too great to ignore.  It is likely that most people don’t buy organic coffee because they don’t realize the impact of non-organic coffee.  By educating ourselves we can begin to shift coffee production toward a more positive direction.
For more information on organic coffee and the environmental impact of coffee cultivation, check out these resources:

Organic Trade Association

Types of Organic Coffee, An Overview

CC Flickr photo courtesy of grimmnitz.

If you’re worried about pesticides, there are plenty of organic options for the foods we eat. Organic coffee is no exception.  Organic coffee is grown in a healthy manner that is beneficial to consumers and to our precious ecosystem.  Keep reading to learn about the various coffee certifications and what each one means.

Organic Coffee

Organic coffee is coffee that is grown according to modern organic farming standards.  In order to gain organic certification, farmers must ensure that the land they are using has been free of synthetic pesticides and other prohibited chemicals for at least three years.  This ensures that their organic crops will not contain potentially harmful chemicals from past crops, which may have used pesticides.

In addition to being chemical free, growers must have a plan in place for crop rotation.  Crop rotation provides a way to keep the soil from degrading.  It is also a sufficient means for combating pests without the use of synthetic pesticides.

Fair Trade Coffee

Fair trade coffee is a type of coffee that is purchased directly from growers.  Fair trade certification ensures that growers are protected and it gives consumers a way of knowing that they are supporting healthy business relationships.  Coffee that isn’t fair trade could potentially be produced in unethical circumstances, but isn’t necessarily.

For instance, some coffee plantations have used child labor.  Other plantations have paid workers unfair wages or didn’t respect human rights.  Buying coffee that is certified fair trade is a way to ensure that you are supporting positive community development and not encouraging unethical practices.

Shade Grown Coffee

Most of the negative environmental effects of coffee plantations are due to the practice of growing full sun coffee.  In contrast, shade grown coffee can have a positive impact on the environment. Shade grown farms consist of coffee and an assortment of other trees.  These other trees provide a canopy above the coffee plantation.

Shade grown plantations resemble a natural forest, and they may contain as many as 40 species of trees.  The diverse ecosystem of a shade grown plantation helps to maintain soil quality and reduce pest problems.  Shade grown coffee plantations also provide habitat for native species, especially birds, and they increase the production of oxygen and uptake of carbon dioxide, which is especially important given the current state of climate change.

Making a Difference When You Choose Coffee Beans

Over the last several decades, modern farming practices used without regard for the environment or health of consumers has led to disastrous consequences.  Fortunately, as consumers we can make a difference by purchasing products which are produced in an ethical and healthy manner.

Organic, fair trade, and shade grown coffees might cost a little more, but by purchasing them you can help to make a difference and ensure that coffee cultivation is here to stay — and that’s good news for those of us who can’t go without our daily coffee.

I’ll admit that I don’t always stick to organic or shade grown or fair trade coffees. I’ve been using the Aeropress coffee maker at my house lately, and it makes totally amazing coffee. It only makes one cup at a time, but it’s worth it.

What’s your favorite coffee type? Leave a comment!