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Thursday, April 14, 2005 11:12 am

earth talk 4-14-05


Dear “Earth Talk”: What are the environmental impacts of our voracious appetite for coffee? — Augie Dent, Capitola, Calif.

According to the Specialty Coffee Association, Americans consume some 300 million cups of coffee every day. Globally, coffee is second only to oil in terms of dollars traded, and it leaves 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.

Before the 1960s, most coffee was grown under the shade canopies of other plants in conditions not unlike those of 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 began to dictate the need for greater production, and coffee growers started clearing their land so that they could grow higher-yield coffee that thrives in direct sunlight. Though 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 nonprofit, to encourage the sustainable production of shade-grown coffee while ensuring that small farmers and agricultural co-ops earn living wages 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 natural environment and respects the economic needs of farmers.

Shade-grown brands are also becoming more widely available to those more inclined to brew their coffee at home. The Smithsonian’s National Zoo Web site features a handy listing of “bird-friendly” coffee retailers (that is, 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. And the Web site Coffee Review lists Green Mountain, Kaldi’s, Thanksgiving Coffee, New Harvest, Kaffe, Café Campesino, and Coffee Tea Etc. as coffees that top the list in terms of pairing excellent taste with environmentally responsible growing practices. Many of these brands are available at organic-food stores and at natural-foods supermarkets such as Whole Foods and Wild Oats.

For more information: Starbucks, www.starbucks.com; Conservation International, www.conservation.org; Coffee Review, www.coffeereview.com; Smithsonian National Zoo “Bird-Friendly” Coffee Finder, www.nationalzoo.si.edu/ConservationandScience/MigratoryBirds/Coffee/; Rainforest Alliance, www.rainforest-alliance.org.

Send questions to “Earth Talk” in care of E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; or e-mail earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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