Volume 13, Issue 10 ~ March 10 - 16, 2005
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Got an Envionmental Question? Send it to: EARTH TALK, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881. Or submit your question at: www.emagazine.com. Or e-mail us at: [email protected].
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Taking Your Coffee Green
What are the environmental impacts of our voracious appetite for coffee?

Americans alone consume some 300 million cups of coffee every day, according to the Specialty Coffee Association. Globally, coffee is second only to oil in terms of dollars traded, and it has a tremendous social and ecological footprint, particularly in regions of the world that also host some of the planet’s greatest, and most threatened, biodiversity.

Prior to the 1960s, most coffee was grown under the shade canopies of other plants in conditions not unlike natural tropical forests. These traditional coffee plantations harbored a wide range of plant diversity, and therefore provided valuable habitat for large numbers of migratory birds and other wildlife. The abundant flora and fauna also helped keep pests in check while providing a wide range of natural nutrients for the soil.

But over the last four decades, the growing popularity of coffee dictated greater production, and coffee growers cleared land to grow higher yield coffee that thrives in direct sunlight. While financially productive, this sun-grown coffee takes a heavy toll on the environment, on wildlife and on workers’ health by eliminating the surrounding biodiversity and requiring heavy use of toxic fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides.

Among others, the Starbucks chain of coffee shops has been a recent innovator in trying to turn the situation around. In 1998, the company formed a partnership with Conservation International, a leading environmental non-profit, to encourage sustainable, shade-grown coffee production while also ensuring that small farmers and agricultural co-ops earn a living wage for their labors, a concept known as fair trade. Starbucks’ Organic Shade Grown Mexico, Decaf Shade Grown Mexico and Conservation Colombia coffees are all grown in an ecologically sound manner that protects the surrounding environment and respects the economic needs of farmers.

Shade-grown brands are also available to those who brew their coffee at home. The Smithsonian’s National Zoo website features a listing of “bird-friendly” coffee retailers (bean sellers committed to shade-grown coffee only), searchable by zip code. The organization Rainforest Alliance, which also works to get the word out about coffee’s big footprint, certifies several brands, including Oriole Blend and Columbia Mesos de los Santos. And the website Coffee Review lists coffees that top the list in terms of pairing excellent taste with environmentally-responsible growing practices. Many of these brands are sold at organic food stores and at natural foods supermarkets like Whole Foods.
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