A Cup Of Coffee

We are a country of coffee drinkers, although I am not among them. Americans collectively drink 400-million cups of Joe each day. Our national drink is served in almost every concession stand in the country, from golf courses to ball parks.

It is not a benign beverage, however. While we often focus on trying to ”green up” the type of cups in which coffee is served, the real culprit is in the source of the coffee.

Because we live in an already overpopulated (6.8 billion) and expanding world (9,000 people net gain per hour), any popular drink is riddled with environmentally detrimental effects. Conventionally raised coffee is particularly bad. Even if the ever-confusing research were to prove that coffee is a healthy beverage, it is not beneficial to the thousands of species of wild animals forced from rainforests that are then replaced by millions of acres of coffee plantations.

Conventionally grown coffee invites a mono-cultural and pesticide-filled landscape to the tropics. It frequently represents grossly underpaid workers and coffee traders who reap the stolen profits as the product is traded throughout the world. In addition, cases of pesticide poisoning have increased among coffee growers. These farmers often mortgage their small land holdings to pay for costly pesticides in an attempt to keep up with production. When they default on the loans, large agri-business companies are only too happy to snatch up land, which may have been in a family for generations.

Comparing Blends

In order to really go “green,” purchase coffee that is organic, fair-traded and shade-grown.

Shade-grown coffee is grown in the shade of taller trees; this provides more habitats for wildlife, particularly migratory birds. Shade-grown coffee needs less help to grow because the beans ripen more slowly.

Meanwhile, fair-traded coffee puts money into the hands of workers instead of the pockets of brokers. Fair-traded coffee refers to an agreement between suppliers and buyers. In small guilds throughout countries like Costa Rica and Guatemala, these cooperatives build equitable trading networks that guard against exploiting the ignorance and poverty of suppliers in order to manipulate lower prices. This practice improves human rights and also helps safeguard the environment--when farmers get a fair price for their coffee beans, they tend to clear less land.

Organic coffee avoids pesticide residues. It also means that the streams and rivers of tropical countries do not carry these toxic substances into the already beleaguered oceans.

There are many brands of coffee that carry the certifications that honor the earth and coffee growers. There are also many certifying agencies. Do some research on the Internet to determine whether the coffee you are ordering has origins in well-managed soil and fair-trading practices.

Changing Habits

So what is the down side? Fair-traded, shade-grown and organic coffees are more expensive because by definition they are cultivated on small farms and not mass-produced. It also can be a challenge to change a department’s wholesale coffee purchasing habits because of long-term contracts with large, traditional coffee companies. The upside is that the change only translates to an additional 5 to 10 cents more per cup.

Even the large coffee distributors usually have a line of eco-friendly coffee that you can order, thereby creating a demand for a more responsible product.

With some public relations, customers are likely to fork over the extra change for the benefit of Mother Nature and human rights. A poster announcing “Eco-friendly coffee served here” will be something to boast about, and may even bring in more customers.

Make this one effort and you will be able to rest easy knowing that the greenest difference you made at your concession stand was not the can you just recycled but in the rainforest that was spared and the farmer’s life that was improved.

Dr. Karen I. Shragg is Director of the Wood Lake Nature Center for the City of Richfield, Minn. She can be reached via e-mail at kshragg@cityofrichfield.org.