By Tim Boucher, senior conservation geographer
A lot of us drink coffee. Some of us drink a lot of coffee. The daily consumption of 2.25 billion cups makes coffee the second-most traded commodity in the world! Only crude oil is ahead of it. The choices we make when we buy coffee (as private citizens and as an organization) are important.
Coffee buyers have many choices and some affect the price you pay. The first and most basic choice is probably taste. Taste is governed first and foremost by the type of bean – starting with arabica or robusta. Arabica tastes better, grows in the highlands, and is more expensive. Robusta, grown in the lowland, is the stuff you mostly find in that two-pound can at the grocery store.
What you can’t taste is the social and environmental aspect of coffee growing methods.
Coffee is very labor intensive from harvesting to cleaning to roasting. It is grown mostly in the developing world, in the tropics. So we not only need to think about who grows the bean, but also how and where it is grown.
Some coffee is grown on enormous farms and some on tiny family fincas. As many as 5 million people are involved. Typically, tropical forest has been cleared, rows upon rows of coffee plants planted and the little red beans harvested, traded through big corporations, and shipped around the world. However, here is one of the choices that you can make – choosing Fair-Trade coffee or even Direct Trade coffee for high-end coffee beans.
This where small-scale farmers are guaranteed a fair value and are linked directly with importers, creating long-term economic sustainability. While it’s not a perfect system (and the subject of much debate), it is helping get the social and economic conditions of coffee in front of consumers.
The next choice is whether to choose organic (or not). Organic, as you might suspect, is coffee grown without using artificial chemical substances – such as many pesticides and herbicides. This is important too. Many of these chemicals kill indifferently (whether the insects are harmful or not), leach into the soil, and foul our rivers.
The coffee is more expensive, but as a conservationist, this is a choice I recommend as well. I think it tastes better too, and it is certainly better for the environment (and probably better for you too).
Lastly, there is shade (often called bird-friendly) coffee.
To conservationists, this is, without doubt, very important. Here the coffee is grown under large trees (hence the shade), which provide habitat for many species, including resident species and neo-tropical migrant birds (Greenberg et al. 1997), and other critters such as bats (Williams-Guillen et al. 2008), improved soil protection in terms of erosion (Ataroff and Monasterio 1997), natural pest control, improved pollination, better water quality and flow regulation (Jose 2009), and lastly is probably better for mitigating the effects of climate change on plantations (Laderach et al. 2009) and sequesters more carbon (Masera et al. 2003)!
Often shade coffee is also organic and fair-trade, and even supports ecotourism. Birders love shade coffee plantations.
The downside? It comes at a price – but it’s a small amount to pay not only for great quality, but also for helping society and the environment. And, if you brew it yourself, it is still way cheaper than that coffee shop on the corner.
If you want to read more, the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center has done extensive research (over 50 studies!) on the ecological importance of shade coffee – and has a very informative website – including certification process, and a list of places you can buy bird-friendly, fair-trade, organic coffee!
Shade coffee – it’s worth the investment, both socially and environmentally.
Ataroff, M. and M. Monasterio, 1997. Soil erosion under different management of coffee plantations in the Venezuelan Andes. Soil Technology 11:95-108.
Greenberg, R. , P. Bichier and J. Sterling, 1997. Bird populations in rustic and planted shade coffee plantations of eastern Chiapas, Mexico. Biotropica 29(4):501-514.
Jose, S. (2009). Agroforestry for ecosystem services and environmental benefits: an overview. Agroforestry Systems, 76(1), 1-10.
Laderach, P., M. Lundy, A. Jarvis, J. Ramirez, E. Perez, K. Schepp, 2009. Predicted impact of climate change on coffee supply chains. Paper prepared at International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) office in Managua, Nicaragua.
Maas, B., Clough, Y., & Tscharntke, T. (2013). Bats and birds increase crop yield in tropical agroforestry landscapes. Ecology letters.
Masera, O.R.; Garza-Caligaris, J.F.; Kanninen, M.; Karjalainen, T.; Liski, J.; Nabuurs, G.J.; Pussinen, A.; de Jong, B.H.J.; Mohren, G.M.J. 2003. Modeling carbon sequestration in afforestation, agroforestry and forest management projects: the CO2FIX V.2 approach. Ecological Modeling 164 (2003) 177–199.
Williams-Guillen, K., I. Perfecto, J. Vandermeer, 2008. Bats limit insects in a neotropical agroforestry system. Science 320:70