Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee farms, like this one in El Salvador, provide clean drinking water to workers.© Chris Wille/Rainforest Alliance
Diego Llach, whose family has farmed coffee on the rugged slopes of El Salvador’s volcanoes for four generations, says at first glance his farm is barely discernible from the surrounding rainforest. "We try to mimic the rainforest as much as possible," explains Llach. "We have a canopy of tall shade trees, and below that a canopy of medium shade trees, then the coffee plants, and below that wheat, which provides food for beneficial insects. This biological chain creates a balance of thriving plants and animals." Llach says visitors to his lush farm can expect to see butterflies darting among the foliage, grasshoppers and many other insects, a family of raccoons that lives in the area and a variety of birds, from toucans to warblers.
However, many modern coffee farms are not nearly as idyllic as Llach"s. About 30 years ago, riding the tide of the global Green Revolution, many coffee farmers around the world began converting from traditional ways to what’s widely known as "technified" or "full-sun" production, which provides improved short-term yields of around 30 percent. "Farmers started taking out all the vegetation and planting rows of coffee that stretch to the horizon like cornfields in Iowa," explains Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society.
Unfortunately, ecologists now realize that full-sun production has serious consequences for the environment and human health. "These are monocultures that have almost no biodiversity value whatsoever," explains Butcher, who has a Ph.D. in zoology. "The farmers go out of their way to kill all other forms of organisms in these fields, including competing plants and insects. You"ll see almost nothing living there except the coffee plants." This concerns scientists, because as Wille explains, "The mountain forests that coffee grows well in are also fragile and host some of the world’s highest biodiversity."
In environmental circles, habitat loss is often cited as one of the biggest threats to the planet’s wildlife, and coffee production has certainly engulfed its share. Over the centuries, the colonial powers cleared millions of acres of virgin tropical forests to make room for coffee, and millions more were degraded by erosion, damage to waterways and other secondary effects of production. "In heavily deforested Haiti, about 80 percent of the loss of tree cover came from coffee production," explains Llach. Today, an estimated one million acres of tropical forest disappear each year in Central America from human activities, as does a similar amount in Mexico, according to the activist group Global Exchange. Equator Coffee Roasters reports that technified coffee production has been the second leading cause of rainforest destruction in recent years.
Wille estimates that about half of the seven million acres of coffee now grown in northern and central Latin America has been converted to full-sun methods. According to a Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center analysis of coffee farms, 17 percent of Mexico’s acreage is now monoculture, as is 40 percent of Costa Rica’s and 69 percent of Colombia"s. Huge fields of full-sun coffee now dominate the landscape in Vietnam, Brazil and Indonesia, and the variety makes up about 75 percent of the coffee consumed in North America, according to Equator Roasters.
Traditionally, coffee was grown the way Llach does it, in the shade of tropical trees. "Shade coffee farms are bursting with life, and if you visit one you will see orange and lime trees, bananas, and many other types of plants with the coffee," explains Guatemala-based Jeronimo Bollen, the founder and president of the farmer-support organization Manos Campesinos. The shading trees often yield fruit, avocados and wood that can help farmers feed their families and earn extra income, and the forest floor is often planted with vegetables and herbs. "We’ve planted 90,000 trees in the last five years, 75 percent of which are native, and many of those are in danger of extinction," says Llach.
"Now that we don’t use chemicals anymore we have weeds, but they are good weeds that help us maintain soil humidity and structure," Llach adds. "Before, we used to get a plague of a certain pest because it had no biological controls, but now, each species controls itself." The Audubon Society reports that a shade coffee farm may have more than 100 species of plants, and one study counted 793 species of insects and spiders on a single farm.
In 1980, scientists in Guatemala discovered that the forest canopy of shade-grown coffee farms could support biodiversity that approximates natural forests, in stark contrast to agribusiness-driven monocultures. Monkeys, bats, coatimundis, agoutis, wild boar, ocelots, anteaters, salamanders, vines, orchids and other epiphytes are some of the living things that frequent and flourish on shade-grown coffee farms, which some experts call "agroforests." In recent years, however, much of the scientific community’s interest has focused on the feathered denizens of the farms. "Of course, nothing beats a pristine forest in terms of habitat, but it turns out that shade-grown coffee is unusually good at supporting birds," explains Audubon’s Butcher.
Bird’s the Word
"In eastern Chiapas, Mexico, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center biologists found that traditionally managed coffee and cacao (chocolate) plantations support over 150 species of birds; a greater number than is found in other agricultural habitats, and exceeded only in undisturbed tropical forest," reports the center. Studies have also shown that full-sun farms have 95 percent fewer species of birds than shade operations, and that fewer than 10 percent of the 150 species of North American songbirds that winter in Latin America can survive a season on a full-sun plantation.
It is these neotropical migrant birds that have largely inspired advocacy campaigns and captured much of the North American public’s attention when it comes to thinking about the impact of the coffee they drink, because these birds are the same colorful songsters that flit through suburban yards, splash in bird baths and fill U.S. and Canadian woods with life through the
warm months, eating enormous amounts of pest insects. Unlike many environmental issues, which often seem hopelessly complex, painfully slow acting or geographically remote, the birds people watch out their windows as they sip their morning French roast have a clear, direct connection to what’s in their cups.
Many scientists have sounded the alarm that the populations of these migratory birds have plummeted 50 percent in the last 25 years. Numbers have declined 70 percent in the case of the Tennessee warbler, 50 percent for the Cape May warbler and 30 percent for the Baltimore oriole, for example. However, U.S. Forest Service scientist Joe Wunderle argues that many birds have probably been saved from extinction specifically because they have found suitable living space on shade-grown coffee farms. Butcher points out the example of the golden-cheeked warbler, an endangered bird that nests only in central Texas and migrates in the winter to southern Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. "The golden-cheeked warbler is just holding on," says Butcher. "There’s been a lot of intensive land use in both parts of its range, including suburban development in Texas, and deforestation is a major threat to its tropical homes." Butcher believes the bird has found invaluable habitat on shade-grown coffee farms.
Another bird that benefits from the same habitat is the threatened cerulean warbler, which is thought to use shade farms as migratory stopover sites and as prime living space. Other migratory birds known to frequent traditional coffee farms include the ovenbird, wood thrush, Baltimore oriole, ruby-throated and buff-bellied hummingbirds, swallow-tailed kite, Kentucky warbler, hermit warbler, painted bunting, greater pewee, chuck-will"s-widow and short-tailed hawk. Of course, year-round residents also make their homes among the bright red coffee cherries, including jays, wood creepers, hummingbirds, toucans, parrots, parakeets and other species.
"Any bird that makes use of the tree canopy can do fine in shade-grown farms, so which birds will live where is a matter of the elevations at which the birds normally live," explains Butcher. Even so, the coffee farms may not provide much suitable habitat for birds that spend most of their time in the understory. "At the extreme end, these plantations are very natural canopies, but the more thinned out they are, the less valuable they are for birds," adds Butcher. Rainforest Alliance also cautions that some higher-yield shade coffees are now being grown with only a few species of trees, making them less valuable for biodiversity.
In El Salvador, where only seven percent of the original forest cover remains, about 95 percent of the coffee crop is still tended under shade cover. According to Rainforest Alliance, this acreage forms vital corridors that link up with the country’s fragmented patches of virgin forest and reserves, greatly expanding the available habitat. "The shade coffee farmers in the Sierra Madre Mountains of southwest Chiapas, Mexico also help maintain an important buffer zone around the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve," adds Julian Teixeira, communications manager for Conservation International’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business. The acclaimed reserve is home to one of the world’s largest cloud forests and is a major ecotourism site.
Blister in the Sun
Another problem with sun coffee plantations is that, without the protective tree cover, the notoriously thin tropical soils are heavily exposed to the torrential rains and blinding sunlight that characterize that part of the world. Erosion and damage to the communities of microorganisms that form the vital living structure of soil is therefore a serious concern, as is worsened flooding. "With technified production, you have to replace your coffee plants every six to eight years, but with organic and shade methods you can have your plants up to 20 years. This saves farmers money and labor," says Bollen of Manos Campesinos.
Since full-sun plantations lack the natural fertilizer and pest control provided by the surrounding environment, they require heavy loads of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. While research suggests that these chemicals may be burned off the final product during the roasting process, and therefore pose little risk to consumers, they can have a huge effect on the environment and workers in host countries.
Fertilizer runoff can cause nutrient loading and damage to important waterways. Further, some of the pesticides most commonly used on coffee—organophosphates and carbamates—have been responsible for thousands of acute toxic poisonings, and have been linked to birth defects, cancer and Parkinson’s disease, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). These chemicals generally kill birds on contact, adding significantly to the assaults on avian species. Pacific Northwest-based coffee roaster Grounds for Change accuses chemicals used on coffee farms of "killing lakes and streams."
Another advantage of shade-grown coffee, which should be of particular interest to coffee connoisseurs, is that the final product tends to be of higher quality. "Shade coffee is better tasting than full-sun coffee," points out Sabrina Vigilante, Rainforest Alliance’s marketing manager for sustainable agriculture. Llach says his family has grown a variety of arabica coffee known as bourbon, which cannot tolerate full sunlight, for 100 years. "Many growers have switched to smaller hybrids that produce more, but require more chemicals to grow and don’t taste as good. I’ve done a study of the coveted cup of excellence awards, and since 2000, 42 percent of all winners are bourbon. In Brazil, although less than two percent of the coffee is bourbon, 57 percent of the winners are," he says.
In general, the two major types of coffee are robusta, which is sun-tolerant and pest-resistant and is grown on massive plantations—particularly in Indonesia, Vietnam, Brazil and India; and arabica, which is grown through much of Central America. Arabica has historically been prized for its mild, rich taste, whereas robusta tends to be much harsher (and higher in caffeine). "Robusta is generally cheap commodity coffee that goes into everyday mainstream brands and instant coffees, although it must usually be blended with arabica because it tastes terrible," says Vigilante.
Currently, Brazil is working on genetically modified coffee in an attempt to increase the plant’s yields and hardiness, although a rollout is several years away. Research is also being done at the University of Hawaii. Resistance to the experimentation is substantial, particularly in Europe, where opponents cite environmental and social concerns. Field trials in French Guiana have been sabotaged.
The Real Juan Valdez
Llach, who once used herbicides and pesticides on his farms, says even though he made sure his workers wore gloves and boots, chemical poisonings were still a problem. Many plantation owners do not provide any protective gear. Dean Cycon, president of Massachusetts-based Dean’s Beans coffee company and a cofounder of the advocacy group Coffee Kids, says huge numbers of coffee farmers and workers are indigenous people, many of whom don’t speak their national languages. "These people can’t read pesticide labels," he says. "In my experience, around the world about a third of coffee farmers are illiterate, although in Papua New Guinea it’s probably more like 90 perce
nt, and in Guatemala it’s probably 80 percent of the women." Such workers are at a severe disadvantage to understand the pervasive health threats posed by industrial chemicals.
Of the 100 million people around the world who depend on coffee for their livelihoods, 25 million are farmers, and 70 percent of those people are trying to eke out a living from small plots of land. Between 1962 and 1989, the global coffee trade was managed essentially as a cartel under the International Coffee Agreement, which regulated transactions. At the same time that the agreement was disbanded, bumper crops of java and the entering of new players (notably Vietnam, driven by aggressive government policies) into the market led to a precipitous drop in prices.
By 2001, the New York trading price for unroasted arabica coffee had sunk below 40 cents per pound. In contrast, through much of the 1970s and 1980s, the price was well over a dollar, and averaged $3.07 in 1977. In 1997 it averaged $1.66 a pound. As Gastronomica put it in 2003, "In real terms, prices are probably at their lowest point since coffee first became an internationally traded commodity some thousand years ago." However, according to Haven Bourque, a spokesperson for trade certifier TransFair, the average world cost of growing quality coffee is 80 cents per pound. Bollen says it costs 85 to 90 cents a pound to produce Guatemalan coffee and ship it to the U.S.
© Transfair USA
Not surprisingly, then, this price slump proved disastrous for many farmers of shade-grown beans. Unemployment rates skyrocketed from Ethiopia and Kenya to Latin America, hitting 80 percent in parts of Nicaragua and Guatemala. In 2001, Oxfam issued a statement saying unless the price paid to coffee farmers improved, it would "consign millions of poor coffee farmers and their families to extreme poverty, with devastating consequences for health, education and social stability."
According to Rainforest Alliance’s Vigilante, "The impact on the environment is devastating during very low price years, because farmers are often forced to convert their land into cattle pastures or other destructive uses." This can include making ends meet by liquidating holdings into lumber or switching to sugar cane or plastic greenhouses for ornamental plants. The British Fairtrade Foundation estimated that by the end of 2001, some 1,000 of Colombia’s 560,000 coffee farms had begun cultivating coca or opium poppies out of desperation.
"In Panama, I started crying when I heard from a Rainforest Alliance-certified farmer that his neighbor just converted his beautiful shade farm into a golf course," says Vigilante. "People assume coffee farmers are being taken care of, and then they wonder why South Americans are found dead in a van near the U.S. border or why desperate people would blow up our embassies," says Dean’s Bean’s Cycon.
Coffee prices rose steadily through 2004 and the first months of 2005, and settled around $1.10 a pound during the middle of the year. While this is good for farmers, serious concerns remain. "Many coffee farmers have incurred substantial debt because of the price crisis, and it will carry over for many years," cautions Daniele Giovannucci, a senior consultant for the World Bank. "I think it is patently absurd to say the crisis is over," he says.
"The true crisis is in the fact that coffee prices are so unstable, and that producers can’t plan for the future," argues Stephen Greene, a spokesperson for Oxfam America, which recently released a report calling on the U.S. government to take a leadership role in addressing coffee issues. "The U.S. just rejoined the International Coffee Organization, and it should take an active role by pushing for price stability," says Greene. "The U.S. has allocated money through USAID to help small-scale farmers, and what they need is access to commercial credit, technical assistance and information, participation in international debate and help with marketing. Coffee farmers tend to be very poor and marginalized, and they need help diversifying their incomes."
Other ways groups around the world are helping small coffee farmers and wage workers make ends meet, as well as improve their environmental sustainability, include varied certification programs, such as the organic and Fair Trade movements (see sidebar). "We have to look at the coffee market today, and ask ourselves what’s not sustainable," says Greene. "A lot of economists are promoting free trade, but a lot of the things going on in the coffee market are counter to free trade, such as the oligopoly of companies that control the industry. If the commodity market doesn’t work for the majority of producers, questions need to be asked."
Barons of the Beverage
Since the collapse of the international coffee cartel, about half of the world’s coffee has been controlled by four corporations: Kraft (brands include Kenco and Maxwell House), Procter and Gamble (Folgers and Millstone), Sara Lee (specializes in the service sector, although retail lines include Chock full o"Nuts and Hill Bros.) and Nestle (the Swiss company’s Nescafé is the world’s number one java brand). Despite the hardships faced by coffee growers in recent years, these companies have earned robust profits. As Washington Monthly reported, "According to company documents, the Big Four’s coffee profit margins are as much as 25 percent—vastly higher than those for most other food products." The magazine concluded, "Prices for specialty blends at supermarkets and cafés have risen, and even the price of mainstream coffee brands like Folgers has not dropped that much. Call it Economics 102—a new paradigm in which both producers and consumers lose."
"The recent increases in the price of green coffee have been more than increases in the price of retail coffee," argues Joseph F. DeRupo, director of communications for the National Coffee Association. "The entire industry supports sustainability at all levels," he says. "The coffee industry invests millions of dollars every year in sustainable production from feed to cup, including helping farmers with technical information, training and initiatives that encourage market development and price transparency. We help improve the lives of farmers with such projects as building schools, libraries and drinking water wells."
Asked if full-sun production is as environmentally sustainable as shade grown, DeRupo responds, "No. Shade-grown coffee clearly promotes the kind of environment that leads to sustainability. Without shade trees you lose the natural flora and fauna that help preserve the land and viable production for years to come."
"If we don’t take care of coffee-producing regions, it’s a south-to-north redistribution of wealth, and that’s just totally wrong," says Cycon. "I don’t think the big coffee companies are really moving in a sustainable direction. I think activists have forced them to pay attention, so you"ll see marketing dollars go to small projects that look good. But if you pay people a decent amount of money, they can build their own wells."
However, with a growing number of more socially conscious and environmentally responsible options lining the shelves of coffee shops and supermarkets, consumers are in the driver’s seat to make sure their morning cups of joe don’t turn int
o cups of woe.
BRIAN C. HOWARD is managing editor of E.