According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), coffee is the single most important tropical commodity that is traded worldwide. It accounts for nearly half of the total exports of tropical products. Daniele Giovannucci, co-founder of the Committee on Sustainability Assessment, reported that it is one of the top cash crops produced by developing countries, several of which are economically dependent on it.
The EU ranks as the world’s largest importer of coffee, accounting for 66% of global coffee imports, followed by the United States at 24%, and Japan at 7%. As such a large, globally traded commodity, coffee cultivation has a large impact on the environment and those who grow it.
Shade grown coffee
Traditionally, a coffee tree is grown in a forested environment under shade from a canopy of larger, taller trees. Shade from taller trees prevent the growth of weeds, protects the coffee trees from frost, and houses a variety of birds and insects which helps keep the pest population down as well as aids in pollination. Those who advocate for this traditional and natural method of growing coffee note that shade grown coffee takes longer to grow but develops a rich taste from the longer ripening time.
However, in order to produce higher yielding and faster growing coffee trees, the coffee industry created a sun-resistant coffee tree hybrid which is now used in approximately 70% of the world’s coffee cultivation. No longer dependent on the shade provided by tree canopies, major deforestation of rainforests has been undertaken to clear away land to make way for coffee production.
Twice the harm
Destroying forests in favor of coffee cropland not only releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, it removes the very means of mediating these gasses.
The Global Forest and Resources Assessment, a report released by the FAO, states that the amount of carbon stored in the world’s forests is approximately 50% more than the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. When forests are cut down or burned, the carbon held therein is released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide, along with nitrous oxide, methane and other greenhouse gasses. Deforestation contributes 22% of carbon dioxide gas emissions into the atmosphere.
Moreover, forests play a critical role in reducing greenhouse gasses. Tropical forests in particular absorb large amounts of carbon through photosynthesis.
Deforestation is not just a threat to the environment but to local bird populations as well.
Bird Friendly, a certification created by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, has established a 100% organic standard for coffee farms in order to reduce the harmful effect conventional coffee cultivation has on birds. The certification was created in response to a devastating decline in North American migratory birds that was attributed to the loss of forests to agricultural land in Latin America, where birds migrate during the winter. The Bird Friendly certification focuses on the habitable environment and natural biodiversity that shade grown coffee promotes.
Certified organic coffee
Certified organic coffee is grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and does not derive from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Organic farming practices employ low impact methods of cultivation and are tailored to enhance soil fertility.
Organic methods of processing are especially important in coffee production when it comes to the process by which coffee is decaffeinated. Typically coffee beans are decaffeinated with the use of chemical solvents, such as methylene chloride—which is potentially dangerous to the central nervous system—or ethyl acetate, which can be harmful to the kidneys, liver, and to the central nervous system as well.
Organic decaffeinated coffee cannot be treated with any synthetics which leaves many of the traditional decaffeination methods out. Two of the most common organic decaffeination methods are the Swiss Water® process or through the use of carbon dioxide.
However, although certified organic coffee regulations promote methods of cultivation which enhance the ecosystem, it does not require coffee trees to be shade grown. This means that the environmental impacts that come with sun grown coffee—such as deforestation and reducing the habitat that supports a diverse range of wildlife—still occurs.
Risks to coffee workers’ health and livelihood
A common misconception amongst consumers is that the organic label means that the farmers and workers involved are treated ethically. Although coffee drinkers are not exposed to much risk from pesticides—most residue is burned off during the coffee roasting process—coffee still remains one of the most chemically treated crops in the world. Agricultural workers who farm coffee often come into direct contact with vast amounts of chemical pesticides.
Remuneration for a farmer’s coffee crop is another area in which coffee farmers can be at risk. As interest in organic products expands, so does the market for organic coffee. With this comes a series of complex supply chains associated with mainstream distribution. It's not unusual for the premium paid for organic coffee to be lost along the way.
Many companies are now insisting on transparency when it comes to the distribution of premiums along the supply chain. Starbucks, for example, in conjunction with Conservation International, has developed a new set of guidelines for ethical sourcing called Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E) Practices.
Along with standards for implementing environmentally sensible practices on farms that supply Starbucks, C.A.F.E. has also established economic transparency, requiring their coffee suppliers to submit evidence of payment distribution along the supply chain to evaluate how much actually gets paid to the farmer.
Fair Trade certifying organizations have been some of the most successful at getting premiums paid to farm workers. Fair Trade programs work with farms and plantations in developing nations, from which most of the world's coffee is sourced, to ensure that a fair price is paid directly to the farm workers and that their working conditions are not a danger to their health.
Certified companies pay a premium in addition to the amount paid for the coffee. This additional money is used specifically for social development projects decided upon by the farm workers. According to the FAO however, only 2% of the total green coffee imports to the US is certified Fair Trade.
“Many buyers believe that it makes good business sense to request that some higher standard of quality is met as part of sustainable practices,” stated Daniele Giovannucci in a publication on the certified coffee trade in North America.
“However, when buyers fail to distinguish the value they place on sustainable practices, they dilute its importance…For sustainability to advance, producers need to have a clear signal from the market about sustainability and there is no signal clearer than a price premium.”