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.

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

Shade Grown Coffee: Why It Matters

CC Flickr photo courtesy of Trees for the Future, a terrific organization.

Coffee has received a bad rap recently because of the adverse environmental effects of many modern coffee plantations. For those of us who enjoy sipping our favorite brew, this is disheartening news. Fortunately, more traditional methods of shaded coffee cultivation are beginning to see use again.

What’s Shade Grown Coffee?

Shade grown coffee is coffee that is grown in the shade of a canopy of trees. This was the traditional method of coffee cultivation in which farmers would plant coffee trees right under the rainforest canopy. In this method, coffee trees add to the ecosystem instead of replacing it.

Modern shade grown coffee can be integrated into forests, but it can also be planted on treeless land. In this case, a variety of trees are planted along with the coffee.

Often as many as 40 species of trees are planted. In addition, the coffee plantation contains numerous species of bushes and plants. In effect, a shade grown coffee plantation provides a whole ecosystem which can create habitat for numerous species.

Benefits of Shade Grown Coffee

The benefits of shade grown coffee are manifold. Since it incorporates a wide array of plants in addition to coffee, a more natural ecology is maintained. This reduces soil degradation and soil runoff, which are common problems with full sun coffee plantations. Another benefit of this natural ecology, is a reduced need for pesticides and fertilizers, which are used in large quantities on full sun coffee crops.

Unlike the more common full sun coffee plantations, shaded coffee provides habitat for many species. In fact, shaded coffee plantations are home to 90% more species of birds than full sun operations. And some of these birds might be the very same you and I see on hot summer days, because they migrate from North America down to prime coffee growing regions.

Shade grown coffee offers more potential for farmers because it can be grown side by side with fruit and nut trees. This provides growers with additional crops to sell, which can be important when coffee prices fluctuate. So although shade grown coffee crops are smaller than full sun crops, they have the added benefit of offering more farming opportunities.

Perhaps one of the most notable advantages of shade grown coffee relates to our current climate crisis. In contrast to most coffee plantations, which result in the deforestation of tropical regions, shade grown plantations increase the number of oxygen producing trees. These plantations help to offset our carbon emissions, and they go along way toward reversing global warming.

So the next time you go grocery shopping, look for shade grown coffee. You’ll be supporting an environmentally friendly growing approach, and you’ll be helping in the fight against global warming. The more of us who make the switch to shade grown coffee, the more farmers will adopt this sustainable, environmentally friendly farming practice.

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!

Coffee and the environment, and what you can do

guy in coffee cup suit

Love drinking coffee but concerned about the environment? Coffee has earned a reputation as a crop which is not particularly eco-friendly. Concerns about soil degradation, deforestation, pesticide use, and water quality have become commonplace. Yet westerners continue to drink one cup of coffee for every two cups of water consumed– and that’s a lot of coffee! Fortunately, we coffee consumers do have environmentally friendly options.

Coffee and the Environment

Coffee wasn’t always harmful to the environment. Once upon a time, coffee was sensitive to the sun and grown under the shade of forest canopies where it required fewer pesticides, less water, and it added to the habitat. However, increased demand for coffee led to more efficient growing methods, which didn’t treat the environment so kindly.

The use of fertilizers increases the yield of coffee, but only when grown in full sun. Soon coffee was adapted to full sun growing, and the natural canopies that once provided shade were altogether removed. This led to the rapid deforestation of coffee growing nations. Unfortunately, much of the world’s coffee is grown in the rainforest regions of the world. Full-sun plantations have a devastating impact on the local ecosystem. Indeed, these plantations support 90% fewer species of birds than shade-grown coffee plantations.

In addition to deforestation, coffee production leads to soil degradation and environmental damages from pesticides and fertilizers. Full sun coffee plantations require enormous amounts of chemicals compared to shade-grown plantations. For instance, Colombia, where most coffee is full-sun, uses roughly 400,000 tons of chemical fertilizers annually. These chemicals can have a negative impact on the farmers that use them too.

One of the least environmentally friendly approaches to coffee cultivation involves razing the landscape of all plants (sometimes using toxic herbicides) and then planting coffee. After the soil is completely degraded, the operation is abandoned and moved to a new location. This process of migratory coffee plantations leaves behind a wake of degraded land, which is unsuitable for wildlife or other crops.

What You Can Do

The negative effect coffee production has on the environment is a result of coffee’s high demand coupled with careless consumer choices. But don’t worry, you don’t need to give up on coffee yet. As coffee consumers, the choices we make when purchasing coffee have an impact on the production methods employed and how coffee cultivation affects the earth.

Not all coffee is bad for the environment. There are organic coffee options, which are free of chemicals. Shade grown coffees are a better alternative to the more common full sun variety. And fair trade coffees guarantee farmers aren’t being taken advantage of. These coffees cost a little more, but that’s because it’s cheaper to destroy forests, plant coffee in the sun, and douse it with chemicals.

We’ll be covering the topic of coffee and the environment more thoroughly in future posts. So stay tuned so you can learn more about coffee production techniques– the good and the bad– and how you can support positive coffee growing practices while still enjoying that fresh-brewed cup of joe.

What is your coffee situation? Do you drink it? And if so, what kind? Fair trade? Organic? Regular? Let us know in the comments!

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