Coffee. It’s the beverage that many of us rely on to galvanize us into action in the morning. In today’s world, it’s ubiquitous.
But coffee is so much more than just a drink, it is a multibillion-dollar global industry.
We are all aware of fair trade coffee, but have you ever stopped to think about the impact the world’s favorite beverage has on our planet?
Given that most coffee-growing regions are also home to some of the most delicate ecosystems on earth, the potential for serious damage is great.
Environmental Impact of the Coffee Trade
Traditional Methods of Growing Coffee
Coffee is typically cultivated in tropical and subtropical areas at high elevations and naturally grows under a shaded canopy of trees.
Traditional coffee growing techniques contribute to high biodiversity levels, thus creating a “working landscape” where farmers can grow coffee and make a living while contributing to conservation efforts.
The shelter from canopies also provides a valuable habitat for indigenous animals, as well as preventing topsoil erosion and removing the need for chemical fertilizers.
Moving on From Traditional Growing Methods
However, due to increased market demand, farmers have moved on from traditional coffee growing methods and turned to sun-grown cultivation techniques instead.
Originating in the 1970s, sun-grown coffee is produced on plantations where trees are cleared so that coffee is grown in rows in direct sunlight.
According to research, sun-grown coffee creates the highest yield, but eliminates the diversity of plants which support an array of insects and animals. This negatively impacts the biodiversity of the region and causes other environmental harms.
Sun grown coffee produces short-term results but harms the environment in the long run.
The switch to sun-grown coffee has resulted in over 2.5 million acres of forest cleared in Central America. Permanently removing trees for something else is called "deforestation".
Deforestation is serious. Tropical forests are critical in protecting atmospheric dynamics, water quality, and wildlife species.
For instance, a lot of migratory birds spend the winter in the Latin America’s tropical forests. When trees are cleared away the birds have no were to go and the biodiversity suffers. Less carbon is sequestered which contributes to climate change.
Water Pollution and Contamination
Contamination of waterways also poses serious environmental threats from the processing of coffee beans. Discharges from coffee processing plants represent a major source of river pollution.
Ecological impacts result from the discharge of organic pollutants from the processing plants to rivers and waterways, triggering eutrophication of water systems and robbing aquatic plants and wildlife of essential oxygen.
Traditional coffee relies on much lower chemical inputs than industrial plantations due to the other plants reducing the susceptibility to pests.
On the contrary, sun-grown coffee often employs intensive pesticides and chemicals that present serious health and ecological concerns.
The World Resources Institute (WRI) carried out a study that reported extensive human exposure to pesticides in Latin America and elsewhere in the developing world. The heavy synthetic fertilizer inputs contribute to increasing contamination of waterways and aquifers.
Unsurprisingly, there is also an enormous amount of waste produced during the manufacturing of coffee.
Coffee plants grow cherries where the beans are housed. The coffee cherries are picked, depulped (i.e., the outer pulp is removed from the cherry), fermented, and the coffee bean is left.
According to research, the process of separating the the beans from the coffee cherries generates enormous volumes of waste material in the form of pulp, residual matter, and parchment.
In fact, over a 6 month period, it was estimated that processing 547,000 tons of coffee in Central America generated as much as 1.1 million tons of pulp and polluted 110,000 cubic meters of water each day. This excess waste harms soil and water sources because the coffee pulp is often dumped into streams, severely degrading fragile systems.
Fortunately, people have found better uses for the waste from coffee production. This includes composting coffee husks mixed with farm animal manure to use as organic fertilizer in farming practices.
The environmental impact of the coffee trade impacts the Earth's soil as well. Soil quality suffers when sun-grown practices are favored over traditional growing means. The elimination of shade cover can cause significant impacts on various soil quality parameters, with higher rates of erosion occurring on renovated coffee plantations where vegetation has been reduced.
A Sustainable Alternative? Shade-Grown Coffee
An environmentally favored alternative to sun-grown coffee is shade-grown coffee. In this method, coffee plants are interspersed beneath a canopy of mature trees, mimicking the way coffee grows naturally in these regions.
According to the American Birding Association (ABA), shade coffee plantations are second only to undisturbed forests as the best habitat for birds and other fauna in Latin America. Additionally, the birds control the insects allowing for higher yields.
What’s more, the presence of vegetation amongst coffee plants reduces the need for intense herbicide preparations, supports at least 50% of the original forest snakes and spider fauna, and protects topsoil effectively.
Source: Dean's Beans
Where Can I Buy Shade-Grown Coffee?
Fortunately, you don't have to go far to find high-quality shade-grown coffee. Shade-grown coffee can be purchased by the bag online. For example, Volcanica coffee is a highly-rated choice.
Volcanica is a family run business. Their coffee comes from a single origin in Costa Rica and is grown at an very high altitude. This commitment to quality makes for a smooth cup of coffee that is sourced in a sustainable way.
Most importantly, Volcanica's products carry the official seals shown below.
These seals prove that the company has met the Fair Trade Alliance and Rain Forest Alliance's requirements and is officially certified.
Are you looking for sustainable coffee brands?
There are tons of fair trade shade grown coffee options available on Amazon.
The environmental impact of the coffee trade is significant, but consumers can do their part by buying environmentally friendly and responsibly sourced coffee. Although it can be more expensive than other forms of coffee, the quality and piece of mind you gain are well worth it.
Additional Resources: Books About the Environmental Impact of the Coffee Trade
If you are interested in learning more about the history of the coffee industry as well as how it relates to sustainability and social justice then check out these popular books.
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