Clouds in Your Coffee

Like many of E‘s readers (and 160 million Americans), I drink a lot of coffee. The jury seems to be out on whether this is good for me or not. Here’s a hopeful conclusion, via MSNBC, “After analyzing data on 126,000 people for as long as 18 years, Harvard researchers calculate that compared with not partaking in America’s favorite morning drink, downing one to three cups of caffeinated coffee daily can reduce diabetes risk by single digits. But having six cups or more each day slashed men’s risk by 54 percent and women’s by 30 percent over java avoiders.” And a 1990 study of more than 45,000 men found no link between coffee, caffeine and cardiovascular disease for those drinking four or more cups of coffee a day.

On the downside, Consumer Reports points out that “heavy coffee drinkers, pregnant women, and possibly people with heartburn, breast lumps or anxiety disorders may benefit from cutting back on the brew.”

So coffee increases alertness and performance, and even helps prevent some diseases. Coffee’s great! But not any coffee. There are both ethical and environmental issues surrounding coffee, and they get a little bit confusing. I once had an editor at a top environmental magazine send a coffee story back to me because it was too complicated. Suffice it to say, that to be completely green, coffee needs to be triple-certified as: a) organic; b) bird-friendly; and c) fair-traded. Let’s look at these three issues separately, courtesy of the socially conscious coffee providers Grounds for Change (which is among the small but growing number of companies that make triple-certified coffee):

"Certified Organic. Coffee, especially when it’s grown in the high-yield, full-sun plantations that have sprouted up around the world in recent years, uses a lot of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. While these chemicals may be burned off during the roasting process, thus not directly threatening the consumer, they can have a huge effect on the environment in their host countries. According to Grounds for Change, “The same chemicals (DDT for example) that have ‘killed’ lakes and streams in coffee-producing areas of Latin America and elsewhere are still used by workers today, frequently without a basic understanding of the harm that they are doing to the environment, to themselves and to their families. The misuse of pesticides typically stems from the workers’ inability to interpret directions and warnings relating to these harmful chemicals. Insufficient access to education has left them illiterate and at the mercy of compounds that cause respiratory arrest, cancer, birth defects and many other disabling and life threatening illnesses. In addition, workers are rarely outfitted with protective gear that might provide them with even a small measure of protection against these pollutants. The use of toxic chemicals is not only hazardous to the workers and their families, but also to the environment that they rely on to sustain themselves.” Organic coffee production enriches the soil with organic fertilizers, and it thrives under and does no harm to the tree canopy (see the bird-friendly entry).

"Bird Friendly. Shade-grown coffee is a vision of sustainability. “A shade-grown coffee farmer stands in his coffee plot laced with orange, avocado, lime and scattered high-canopy trees,” writes Grounds for Change. “Birdsong rains down from above and the rustle of animals in the twigs and fallen leaves surrounds him on all sides. Dappled sunlight filters down and glints off the glossy green leaves of his mature coffee shrubs.” Coffee farms in the shade of big canopy trees act as oases for more than 150 species of migratory birds, whose populations are plummeting, down 50 percent in the last 25 years. Full-sun farms have 95 percent fewer species of birds than canopy forests.

"Fair Trade. Fair-traded coffee is produced in cooperatives whose members receive a livable wage. Fair-traded coffee costs a bit more, but it’s becoming more widely available, even at Starbucks. TransFair USA is the umbrella organization that oversees fair-trade certification in the U.S., and it guarantees producer cooperatives $1.26 a pound. If it’s organic, the coffee commands $1.41 a pound. These prices are significantly above the prevailing market price of 49 to 52 cents per pound, hardly a living wage for coffee farmers. For fair-trade certifications, importers must buy their product from certified producers with democratic governance, and agree to long-term, stable relationships. If you want to learn more, try reading Julia Alvarez’ A Cafecito Story. There are thriving fair-trade co-ops in Guatemala, Indonesia, Peru, Bolivia and many other countries.That wasn’t too complicated, was it? All of it makes you think before grabbing your next pound of coffee off the rack at the local Shop ‘N Save.