Did you know the United States is the No. 1 coffee-consuming nation in the world? Nearly 52 percent of Americans drink coffee daily. That equates to about four million cups of coffee! But coffee comes with environmental and social impacts that the average espresso sipper or frappuccino guzzler doesn't realize. The type of coffee you drink may not be earth-friendly or socially responsible. Read on for eco-responsible brews.
The way coffee is grown impacts the environment
According to Diane MacEachern, author of Big Green Purse, most coffee is grown on farms and plantations by companies that don't give a second thought about protecting the planet or providing fair wages to the labor.
"Coffee is raised on estates in the rain forests that straddle the earth's equator. If coffee is grown in the shade, as it does naturally…shady rain forest trees protect the coffee plants below them from rain and sun, help maintain soil quality, reduce the need for weeding, and naturally control bugs," explains MacEachern.
The organic matter from the trees provides an ecological mulch that reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, controls erosion, and helps build the soil. Further, shade-grown coffee plants and the rain forests that nurture them also provide a refuge for migrating North American birds in the winter. This type of eco-system is earth-friendly and produces quality coffee.
However, coffee grown in the sun or on "technified estates" have just the opposite effect on the environment. To grow sun-grown coffee, farmers must raze rain forests, and, even more disturbing, the types of coffee grown on these estates require heavy doses of pesticides and chemical fertilizers to thrive.
"While growing coffee in the sun increases yields, the payoff comes with a big environmental price tag," says MacEachern. "In Columbia, with some 86 percent of coffee production technified, the country applies more than 400,000 metric tons of chemical fertilizers annually. Costa Rica, reports the Natural Resources Defense Council, continues to permit chlordane, a highly toxic insecticide that persists for years in the environment."
Further, the toll on wildlife due to sun-grown coffee is startling. Studies have found 97 percent fewer bird species on sun coffee farms than on shade-grown coffee farms. And, worst, sun-grown coffee plantations are contributing to the deforestation of natural forest areas, which is damaging not just to birds, but also to mammals, reptiles, and insects that inhabit the forests.
More yield doesn't necessarily mean more money
Though sun coffee farms produce more coffee beans, it doesn't mean the farmers earn more money. In fact, farmer's who grow their coffee in the shade may be paid twice as much as the sun coffee farmers. That is, if they have a chance to garner the fairer wage.
MacEachern says, "Global Exchange, a nonprofit organization that promotes fair wages for coffee farmers, calls most coffee farms 'sweatshops in the fields.'" She adds, "Coffee farmers may earn as little as 50 cents a pound for their product, even when a retailer is charging more than 11 dollars a pound for the same beans."
Buy coffee that will make an eco-responsible difference
Buy coffee that has been certified to protect the environment as well as the workers. It is as easy as reading labels and making the more eco-conscious choice.
Deciphering the coffee labels
Here are the terms to look for when choosing an eco-friendly coffee.
Fair Trade Certified:Sponsored by TransFair USA, fair trade certified coffee was grown by adults, not children, who were paid a premium for their beans. Farmers also invest the extra money in health care, education, and other benefits for their families and communities. Importers who do business with fair trade certified farmers must extend credit if the farmers need it and provide technical assistance that can help farmers switch to organic farming. The Fair Trade Certified label limits eligibility to small-holder farms organized into cooperatives.
Certified Organic:Coffee with this label has been grown free of harmful pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides. It meets the USDA organic standards, protects farmworkers, wildlife, and waterways from toxic chemicals. Generally, organic coffee is also shade-grown.
Shade Grown:This indicates that the coffee was grown under the rainforest canopy. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center also certifies coffee "Bird Friendly" if the coffee is grown in the shade under conditions that are ecologically sound for migratory birds.
Rainforest Alliance Certified:To gain this certification, coffee must be shade-grown using low or no pesticides and workers must be treated in accordance with International Labor Organization standards. Farmers are also required to maintain the variety of animals and trees on their land that characterizes diversity.
Triple Certified Coffee: The best choice is coffee that is organic, shade-grown, and fairly traded. Visit MacEachern's website BigGreenPurse.com for triple certified coffee companies.
Companies that are not selling shade-grown, fair trade, organic coffee
According to MacEachern, most major commercial coffees are not certified or only make certified coffees available online. She suggests contacting companies like Folgers, Maxwell House, Hills Bros. Coffee, and Nestle (Taster's Choice) and urge them to become triple certified.
Consider how much coffee you drink on a weekly basis. Switching to a triple certified brew will not only help the environment, it is socially responsible, and you may find that high-quality shade-grown coffee is even more delicious and enjoyable.