Coffee has long been one of the most integral beverages of our society. Coffee shops preceded taverns in the period of enlightenment as a place for intellectual discourse, and since then coffee has become one of the most socially acceptable vices ever. Aside from the Church of Latter Day Saints, no religions are against coffee and for many cultures sitting down for coffee is a historic routine passed on for generations. With the advent of Starbucks becoming as ubiquitous as McDonalds, everyone has the opportunity to get their coffee fix in nearly anyway possible. The bevy of flavors, milk additions, etc. available at your local coffee shop also comes with the decision to buy Fair Trade, “Bird-Friendly”, Shade-grown, or eco-friendly coffee. These have all become pretty much the norm at any café and are not noticeably more expensive than your everyday cup of coffee. It has become trendy and seen as socially forward to make the extra effort to buy more environmentally conscious coffee because it is so easily attainable. The coffee plant is an interesting plant for this to happen to because of its widespread appeal as well as the different ecosystems it inhabits. Coffee has now become conflated in some ways with not just being cultured, but with ethical living even.

Coffee Plant

With the increase in the world’s idea of coffee as a necessary luxury, coffee prices have risen in recent years along with the demand for coffee from the countries able to produce it. These coffee plantations are often in developing nations where there is a large amount of biodiversity which is affected by the increased demand for coffee. These farmers are forced to supply more as the coffee retailers reap the benefits of the rising prices abroad while the farmers sell very little domestically and must clear more and more land to meet demand and make a profit. This means that one of the most biologically diverse regions, because coffee is grown mostly near the equator, is being separated into large coffee farms making it harder for species to breed in a way that varies their genetics and improve their odds to survive, meaning that species are more likely to go extinct or endangered. All of this was of course before the spirit of change and charity took over much of the coffee world.
One of the older, more widespread, and more well known organizations working to regulate coffee is the fair trade initiative. Fair trade coffee is characterized by a certification, but is effectively a stamp of approval that workers were paid fair wages, working conditions are near the standard of developed nations, and prices are somewhat stabilized and somewhat inflated to help farmers stay profitable while keeping their farms somewhat smaller and manageable. This helps to keep small farms in business which have less of an impact on the environment as well as creates a greater yield because of the crops’ proximity to a real ecosystem like the forest which is where the plant is traditionally found.

Coffee plantation

A greater amount of stability in one of the largest and most volatile markets in the world means that smaller farms can have more autonomy with who they trade and sell to, as well as manage their farms more closely and work toward being more ecologically friendly. This has allowed for the institution of another type of certification for farmers which is far harder to get and much more of a hands on type of farming. “Shade-Grown” or “Bird-Friendly” coffee is grown essentially in its natural habitat allowing for a canopy to shade the trees and for birds to pollinate the trees naturally. This not only creates more flavorful coffee, but it means that more beans will be produced because of the pollination method. The harvesting of the beans in this way of course is more labor intensive than the usual method of monoculture, but the benefits have gotten to the point of outweighing the disadvantages at this point. Shade growing the coffee beans in their more natural habitat also makes the farms more sustainable as the nutrients are cycled between the organisms decreasing the need to constantly fertilize (Hull). Bird activity is seen as a sign of biodiversity and prosperity in the tropical forest because it is necessary for much of the vegetation to continue to prosper naturally. In the traditional monoculture style of coffee growing the plantations are referred to as “green deserts” because they contain nearly no birds and rely almost wholly on fertilizer for their nutrients meaning very little is retained in environment.

Coffee growing

The higher cost of these certifications may mean that farms will be slower to officially be a part of the environmental initiative, but as more and more farms see the benefits aside from the increased stability and value from a more forest-like farm they will begin to adopt the practices for more reasons. The small amount of money that many choose to pay at the counter, or the super market, etc. can easily be seen as worth it for the change it will continue to bring about. While it may not be enough to bring back the rainforests, or stop global warming in its tracks, it could spark other industries to bring about change. Being one of the largest traded commodities in the world means that a successful move towards sustainability and environmentalism all the while maintaining profitability could says a lot about the willingness of people to pay more for a more ethical product if it is within their means. I hope that this recent trend goes on to take over other agricultural industries so as to maintain sustainability and biodiversity. When given the choice or chance do you go for the rainforest, fair trade or organic certified coffee instead of another? Does it mean anything to you where your coffee comes from?

Leave a Reply