Green It: Eco-friendly Coffee

Your cup of coffee might be more potent than you think.

| November/December 2007

  • Coffee plants growing under a biodiverse shade canopy in Costa Rica.
    Photo courtesy of Jim’s Organic Coffee

  • Jeff Taylor

  • Rick Wetherbee

  • Christopher Russell

  • Pitcher

  • Jeff Taylor

Coffee Recipes:
• Blackberry-Coffee Barbecue Sauce
• Hazelnut-Pear “Coffee” Coffee Cake 

If you’re like most Americans, you start each day with a hot cup of coffee—or rather, it takes a hot cup of coffee to get your day started. Make that 3.2 cups every day, which is what the average coffee drinker consumes, according to the National Coffee Association and the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Coffee is so customary in the United States, it has become the third most common import. What is no longer customary, however, is the basic black brew the majority of us consumed as little as a decade ago.

Nowadays myriad types of coffee create multiple choices—not simply the type of bean or blend, or how the coffee was roasted or brewed, but also the way it was grown. And the type of coffee you choose can influence more than just your taste buds—it also can have big effects on the environment and your health. One coffee that is becoming increasingly favorable to both coffee drinkers and the rain forest ecosystem is shade-grown coffee, which is coffee that is grown beneath a canopy of sun-filtering shade trees.

How Coffee is Grown  

Up until about 30 years ago, coffee primarily had been grown under the canopy of shade trees, providing rich habitats for birds and other forest-adapted organisms. This practice started to change in the 1970s when agribusiness overshadowed traditional methods. In the past two decades alone, more than four out of 10 coffee-growing lands in Central and South America have been stripped of their native canopy of shade trees to make way for higher yielding, yet shorter lived, hybridized coffee plants. These sun-grown varieties are aided by an onslaught of chemicals and require year-round labor, placing financial demands on growers and exposing workers to serious health risks. Sun-grown coffee destroys bird habitat and leads to greater soil erosion and higher amounts of toxic runoff, endangering wildlife and the environment. This coffee grown on scalded earth results in a loss of trees that provide “insurance” crops to growers, such as timber, citrus and other fruit trees.

Shade-Grown Benefits: Great Taste and Beyond  

The new niche market for shade-grown coffee has many coffee drinkers raising their cups to a better-tasting, more environmentally friendly brew. Shaded coffee helps preserve biodiversity and drastically reduces the need for chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Shade coffee plants might not be as productive as hybridized plants grown in full-sun operations, but the plants can produce crops for up to 50 years. Shorter-lived sun coffee plants remain productive for only 10 to 15 years—sustained by the intensive management of chemicals.

Coffee cultivated beneath a shade canopy provides a safe haven for hummingbirds, swallows, tanagers and other native and migratory birds. In fact, shade-grown coffee areas not only shelter up to 97 percent more bird species than sun-grown coffee plantations, they also provide habitats for a surprisingly rich diversity of insects and wildlife species. In turn, the birds, beneficial insects and other predators aid in natural pest control. Fallen leaf litter blankets the ground with an organic mulch that conserves soil moisture, naturally suppresses weeds, adds organic matter and eventually increases the fertility of the soil—all while fostering the growth of coffee plants.



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