The Low Down On Green Living
July 20th, 2008
Today we are joined by guest writer by Julie Craves, who is the force behind Coffee & Conservation. Coffee and Conservation is a wonderful site devoted to educating all of us about the connection between coffee and the environment. Julie Craves is a University of Michigan bird ecologist and coffee lover. Her research focuses on migratory birds in North America, and she has traveled to several coffee-producing countries and visited a number of coffee farms. Thank you for sharing your insights, Julie!
Coffee is grown in over 60 tropical countries, with most of it still produced on small family farms, but adding up to tens of millions of acres. In the last decade, a huge worldwide surge in demand for coffee has had two profound consequences. It caused a rapid worldwide expansion in production, largely of cheap beans that flooded the market and contributed to plummeting wholesale prices. And in the rush to increase production, it caused a shift from traditional, sustainable coffee growing methods (with coffee plants grown in the shade of diverse native trees) to intense monocultures that require large inputs of fertilizer and pesticides which bring about a loss in biodiversity and quickly deplete the land.
Coffee is the second largest U.S. import after oil. Coffee drinkers have the potential to make a huge impact on the environment and economies of coffee growing nations. If we understand the stakes, we can make a significant difference, and enjoy our favorite beverage at the same time!
The Top 5 Indicators for Finding Sustainable Coffee
1. Certification. Because of the costs of certification — to the farmer and/or the roaster — not all sustainable coffees necessarily carry a seal. And if they do, it could be one of several.
BIRD-FRIENDLY is certified by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, and it is grown under the most stringent environmental standards of any certification system. It is also required to be certified organic.
ORGANIC certification is an important indication that many (but not necessarily all) chemical inputs have been eliminated or reduced.
RAINFOREST ALLIANCE also has environmental criteria, although organic certification is not required, and a coffee may carry the seal and only contain 30% certified beans. Beware that some of the large commodity coffee providers (such as Kraft, which markets Yuban coffee) use the Rainforest Alliance seal, but only purchase a tiny fraction of their supply from sustainable sources.
2. Country of origin. Some countries still grow much of their coffee under shade, preserving native forest and biodiversity and using few if any chemicals. Other countries have removed shade trees or cut down areas of native forest and planted sun-tolerant coffee varieties. Countries most likely to grow under shade are El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Papua New Guinea. These countries are more likely to grow coffee in deforested, full sun farms, so use a lot of caution: Costa Rica, Brazil, Colombia, Vietnam.
3. Botanical variety. There are two species of coffee used commercially: Coffea arabica or arabica coffee, and Coffea canephora, or robusta coffee. Arabica is high quality. Robusta coffee is nearly always low quality, mass produced in deforested sun coffee monocultures with lots of chemicals, and is used in most supermarket coffees. You won’t see “robusta” on the label, so look for “100% arabica.”
4. Roaster. Buy coffee from a small, specialty roaster. A good roaster develops a relationship with the farms and co-ops that grow their coffee — it’s in everybody’s best interest for the coffee to be grown sustainably. The farmer gains by having a reliable buyer and a safe, healthy environment, and the roaster gains by having a reliable source of quality coffee. A conscientious roaster will have very specific information on the precise origin of each coffee it sells, and you can determine how the coffee was grown to guide your purchase. You can find a list of recommended roasters both in the page footer of Coffee & Conservation, or at the Coffee & Conservation Interactive Roaster Map.
5. Price. This is nearly a given: cheap coffee is not sustainable. Not for the farmer, not for the environment. People who are used to paying less than $5 a pound for grocery store coffee shudder at the idea of paying $10 or more for a pound of coffee from a specialty roaster. Ounce for ounce, it’s still cheaper than a good bottle of wine or scotch or many other beverages. You can calculate how much a cup of coffee costs from any given bag you purchase in this worksheet.
- What is shade grown coffee?
- There is no legal definition of “shade grown” and some companies play fast and loose with this designation.
- Problems with “sun” coffee
- Coffee naturally occurs in forests, but there has been a recent trend to “modernize” production by planting it in deforested monocultures.
- Why birds need shade coffee farms
- What’s so important about growing coffee in the shade, anyway?
- More background on sustainable coffee
- Here are more links to help you understand the basics of sustainable coffee.
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