But consumers are getting wiser—and choosier—about which coffee brands they buy. A recent trend in ethical consumerism has seen coffee-lovers voting with their dollars. And what they’re voting for are organic, shade-grown and fair trade beans—for a number of reasons, including better taste and a higher nutritional profile, in addition to environmental and fair trade concerns.
What are conscientious consumers not buying? Coffee grown on corporate-owned sun plantations, produced with a heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and little regard for the health and welfare of plantation workers and small, sustainable farmers.
The evolution of coffee growing
Traditionally, coffee beans or “fruits” have grown at high altitudes in tropical climates. Of the greater than 50 coffee-producing countries, Brazil ranks first in total exports, followed by Vietnam, Colombia and Indonesia. The majority of beans cultivated in these locales belong to the species Coffea Arabica, which contains less caffeine, and tastes less bitter, than the Robusta variety that may be used as filler in some brands.
Since its earliest cultivation in Ethiopia, the shrub-like C. arabica plant has been grown alongside other vegetation in multi-layered tropical forests. The natural canopy shades the coffee plants, which produce their highest yield at 35 percent – 65 percent shade. Local pollinators help to maximize the fruit set. The rich biodiversity of organic soil matter contributes to both the nutritional value and rich flavor of the beans.
Nature has optimized the process of growing great coffee. But once corporate greed intervened, coffee production took an unsustainable turn for the worse.
Sun plantations first gained ground in the 1970’s as a means of increasing yield. By removing canopy layers–essentially clear cutting sections of tropical forest—coffee bushes could be planted at higher densities. The hybrid plants that can survive these conditions also ripen faster in direct sunlight, resulting in more crops-per-year compared with shade-grown beans.
While there’s no doubt sun growing produces a quicker-to-market bean, the downsides are devastating.
As always, consumers have the power to influence how coffee is grown. Our choices at the checkout counter can go a long way toward diminishing demand for unsustainable, sun-grown coffee. Here are six good reasons to choose organic, shade-grown, fair trade coffee.
1. Reduced exposure to pesticides. Pesticide use is much greater on sun plantations, where the natural pest control provided by native birds and insects is missing. Toxic chemicals and fertilizers not only threaten the farmers who work with them, but also run off into local water sources, killing off valuable microbes in the soil, and even depositing chemical residues in the harvested beans.
2. Save the forests. Deforestation goes hand-in-hand with sun-grown coffee. As of 2011, 2.5 million acres of forest in Central America alone have been clear cut to make way for sun plantations. Without canopy cover, soil is much more vulnerable to erosion, which in turn facilitates run-off of pesticides and fertilizers. Deforestation is also a major contributor to global warming, accounting for about one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions.
3. Preserve biodiversity. Biodiversity is a direct victim of sun plantations, from the soil to the skies. As with any monoculture crop, the destruction of plant and animal diversity that occurs on sun plantations destabilizes natural food webs. The loss of a complex layer of humus kills off soil microbes and nitrogen-fixing organisms, resulting in depleted, nutrient-poor soil. Above ground, clear cutting displaces millions of plant and animal species native to traditional coffee-growing ecosystems. Compared to shaded farms, for example, an estimated 95 percent fewer birds are found on sun plantations.
4. Save the soil and the climate. Increasingly scientists warn that stripping soil of its natural ability to store carbon makes any form of industrial agriculture, including coffee sun plantations, a big contributor to global warming. Alternatively, by protecting the soil’s natural ability to sequester carbon, we can actually reverse global warming
5. Support small farmers: Corporate agribusiness is the primary beneficiary of sun plantations. Small farmers, in contrast, are far less likely to support the clear cutting, toxic chemical usage and overall environmental destructiveness of sun growing. Supporting industrial coffee production means giving the go-ahead to sun farming, as well as edging out the small farmers who have a vested interest in the health of their land.
6. Drink better-tasting coffee: Taste is perhaps the casualty of sun growing that most directly affects consumers. Because coffee fruits ripen faster in the sun, they have less time to develop the positive qualities looked for by coffee connoisseurs. One study found that shade-grown beans are larger, less bitter (owing to greater carbohydrate accumulation), and more complex in flavor compared to their sun-grown counterparts.
Whether your priority is to purchase ethically grown and processed coffee, or to just brew a cup with full-bodied flavor, opting to avoid sun-grown coffee is the best choice.
Unfortunately, it’s not always the easiest choice.
For one, not all shade-grown coffee is created equal. Growing conditions are usually classified into five categories, ranging from “rustic” (natural, multi-layered canopies), to unshaded monoculture (full sun). Some producers may choose to label their beans as shade-grown while only meeting the bare minimum shade requirements.
A good rule of thumb is that if a coffee’s growing conditions are not clearly labeled, it is most likely sun-grown. This map, from a 2010 University of Texas study, is a good resource for identifying countries with a high percentage of sun-grown coffee production.
The next question to ask when choosing coffee is, is it certified organic? If not, even though it may be shade-grown, it may well have been sprayed with pesticides.
Once you’ve confirmed shade-grown and organic, the last question to ask is, is it Fair Trade certified? The Fair Trade movement advocates for small-scale, sustainable farmers so that large buyers do not edge them off of their land. A variety of certifying groups have developed standards for qualifying fair trade practices. But beware—not all Fair Trade certifiers are created equal. This analysis by the Fair World Project provides a detailed breakdown of some of the major coffee brands, and just how they rank in terms of environmental, social and economic sustainability.
October is Fair Trade month—an opportunity for consumers to consider the benefits of buying a Fair Trade cup ‘o Joe, instead of perpetuating a corporate-controlled, unsustainable, environmentally destructive coffee-growing model.
Hannah Bewsey is a writer and researcher for the Organic Consumers Association.
Ronnie Cummins is international director of the Organic Consumers Association and its Mexico affiliate, Via Organica.