The Coffee Industry Is Worse Than Ever For The Environment

The Coffee Industry Is Worse Than Ever For The Environment

Every day, coffee fans in cities from San Diego to Stockholm get a dose of self-satisfaction along with their morning caffeine jolt when they order fancy coffee that tastes great and that they assume is helping the environment.

But the recent uptick in coffee connoisseurship hasn't yet translated into a more environmentally friendly coffee industry. Quite the opposite. According to a study published in the latest issue of BioScience, the world's coffee farms are now more harmful to the environment than ever.

Specifically, the study's authors, led by Shalene Jha of the University of Texas, found that a far larger share of the world's coffee than ever before is now being grown in direct sunlight, rather than under the shade of a canopy of trees. These full-sun coffee farms are scarcely any different from the large plots of monoculture corn and soybeans that have been vilified by environmentalists over the past several decades.

By contrast, large trees provide a habitat for native wildlife, support soil health, fight erosion and confer side benefits, like fruit and firewood, to farmers. "Our scientists say a certified coffee farm is the next best thing to rainforest," Chris Wille, the head of sustainable agriculture at Rainforest Alliance, said of shaded farms.

"The expansion of coffee that we've seen in the last two decades has largely been in places where coffee is grown in this low-shade, very intensive style, where there are no overstory trees," Jha said. "And in this manner of production, the coffee really doesn't last very long, and it really degrades the environment."

sunned coffee farmA full-sun coffee farm in central Colombia

Much of the recent shift away from shade is due to the growth of the coffee industries in Brazil and Vietnam, the first- and second-biggest producers in the world in 2010, according to the study. The researchers found that more than three-quarters of the coffee farmland in those two countries contains no tree cover.

While more people might be ponying up for an occasional $5 latte at a hipster outpost, enough of us are still buying cheap coffee that full-sun farms are expanding. The industries in these two countries are dominated by the cultivation of inexpensive, bitter-tasting robusta coffee, which is used to make instant coffee and the bulk ground coffee you might buy in a can at a supermarket.

More upscale options like Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts typically use beans from arabica coffee plants, a different species from robusta, to make their brews. While arabica is more likely to be grown in the shade, Jha noted that much of the world's arabica is still grown in direct sun, or on partially shaded farms that offer environmental benefits far more modest than fully-shaded farms.

The study's authors estimated that the share of the world's coffee farms that employ traditional shade-growing methods plummeted from 43 percent to 24 percent between 1996 and 2010 -- just as savvy consumers were waking up to the joys of higher-quality coffee. A whopping 41 percent of the coffee farmland contained no shade trees at all in 2010, an all-time high.

Because coffee plants evolved in the understory of the East African jungle, they were grown only in shade for the first several hundred years of human cultivation. But in the 1970s, agronomists started to believe that growing coffee in direct sunlight could increase photosynthesis, prevent disease and allow greater density of shrub planting. So farmers cut down the tree canopies that shaded their shrubs. They compensated for the loss of natural insect-killing birds and bats by applying more pesticides and for the loss of the trees' soil-fertilizing leaves and roots by applying more fertilizers.

This strategy helped increase yields significantly, especially in Brazil, where coffee is grown in sunned, mechanically tended crop circles, much like corn in Iowa. Some (including Jha) argue that beans grown in direct sunlight taste worse than coffee grown in the shade, but Dan Cox, president and owner of Coffee Analyst, a coffee testing company in Burlington, Vermont, dismissed this idea.

"There is a slight, if at all, perceivable taste difference between shade coffee and non-shade coffee," he said. "I don't think the issue with full sun is taste, ultimately -- I think it's biodioversity."

shade grown coffee farmA shaded coffee farm, with a diverse canopy of trees

That's where Jha and her co-authors come in. They argue that getting rid of the trees eliminates a crucial habitat for native wildlife, such as tropical birds and monkeys, and makes the land more susceptible to erosion and climate change. And using more chemicals creates still other problems.

"We know now from decades of high-input industrial agriculture in the U.S. that by shifting away from traditional practices, you lose an incredible amount of topsoil, you contaminate waterways and you make yourself much more vulnerable to changes in weather," said Robert Rice, a research scientist at the Smithsonian Migratory Birds Center and a co-author on the paper.

According to Jha, the only way to ensure that your coffee is good for the planet is to buy beans that have been certified by Rainforest Alliance, or, even better, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Organic and fair-trade beans are great too, she said, but those certifications do not specifically account for shade cover or biodiversity.


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