Coffee is the second most valuable traded good in the world. The United States alone imports more than 2.5 billion pounds of coffee each year, mostly from South and Central America and Southeast Asia.
Unfortunately, many offee production methods can have negative environmental, social, and economic impacts.
Two main species of coffee beans are cultivated around the world:
Robusta coffee. This coffee grows best in full sun, in hotter and wetter climates.
Arabica coffee. This species is often “shade-grown” and can grow alongside other plants in forested environments.
Both Robusta and Arabica coffees have environmental impacts, which include:
Deforestation. Forests are continuously being cleared to make room for coffee plantations. Deforestation destroys whole ecosystems. Although full-sun coffee causes the greatest amount of damage, the thinning of forests for shade-grown coffee also decreases biodiversity.
Soil Degradation. Most full-sun coffee plantations use pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Over time, these industrial growing practices cause significant soil erosion, and much of the land once used for coffee cultivation has been abandoned due to poor soil quality.
Water Pollution. Coffee pulp (the waste from processing raw coffee beans) can be used as healthy soil mulch, but when coffee processing occurs away from the fields it is frequently discarded in nearby rivers, polluting waterways.
Our nation’s coffee habit is profitable for everyone except for the farmers.
Estimates say coffee farmers and laborers receive only 7% of retail revenue compared to the roasters’ 29% and retailers’ 22%. Ensuring coffee farmers’ economic livelihood is a priority for many NGOs and necessary to sustainable development in many parts of the world.
There are many well-established programs that enable consumers to make a difference each time they purchase coffee.
Here are some labels to look for when choosing an ethical coffee option:
Fair Trade Coffee. Certified by Fair Trade USA, only small farmer-owned, democratically run coffee cooperatives are eligible for this certification. Fair Trade coffee farmers follow socially responsible growing and labor practices, and in turn are guaranteed a minimum price for their product, ensuring a higher premium for their crop.
Certified Organic Coffee. Grown without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, the organic growing methods used benefit the environment by minimizing contamination of waterways and wildlife. These methods also protect the health of the farm workers by decreasing exposure to these chemicals. It is estimated that 65% of the coffee producers in Mexico are organic, not by choice, but because they don’t have the resources to pay for chemical fertilizers. However, they are not certified as organic by the USDA because certification is too expensive.
Rainforest Alliance Certified Coffee. This certification recognizes sustainable farm management, including social, labor and environmental responsibility. This label also guarantees that the coffee beans have been shade-grown under the rainforest canopy, minimizing soil erosion and preserving the biodiversity and natural ecosystem of the area.
Bird-Friendly Coffee. Certified by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, this coffee has been shade-grown under a canopy of trees, thus preventing habitat destruction for select migratory birds. Bird-Friendly coffee is also organic (i.e., grown without chemical-based pesticides).
Utz Kapeh. This phrase means “Good Coffee” in an ancient Mayan dialect. It is a certification program that establishes standards for socially and environmentally responsible practices, improved farm management and product traceability. Utz Kapeh is the main certifier of ethically sourced coffee in Europe and is now becoming more readily available in the United States.