Global warming, rain forest destruction, air and water pollution, genetic engineering, economic globalization and a host of other problems threatening our environment may seem so distant and vast as to be beyond the average person’s control. However there is a threat to our environment and health that is just as destructive and massive but is as close as your cup or kitchen. Coffee, the second most widely traded commodity in the world, has become a major threat to the world in recent times but there is something that every coffee drinker can do.
There are an estimated 25 million people worldwide whose livelihood is dependent on growing and selling coffee. From its humble beginnings in East Africa, coffee cultivation has spread to Central and South America, Southern Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands. On the face of it, the cultivation of this tree crop looks like a friendly use of the earth and it was for a long time. This has dramatically changed recently due to two interconnected events that are simultaneously wrecking havoc on the environment; the people who work and live in coffee producing regions and you directly.
The first event is the dramatic increase in cultivation of the robusto variety of coffee trees. As opposed to the traditional arabica trees, these trees can tolerate more sunlight, have a higher caffeine content, grow at lower elevations, are more tolerant of pesticides and chemicals and produce more coffee beans per tree (estimated two thirds more beans than a shade grown arabica tree). Millions of acres of ecologically sensitive lands have been turned into groves for the cultivation of these robusto beans. The flood of these beans into the market place has had a devastating effect on the coffee market and the families who grow coffee. As documented by Oxfam (www.oxfamamerica.org) an internationally recognized organization on global famine and exploitation, Brazil and Vietnam in particular, have flooded the world market with these robusto beans driving down the export price of coffee to 40 year lows and increasing the poverty and misery of the people in the coffee growing regions. Just as devastating has been the effect on the land: The arabica coffee trees were traditionally grown on smaller farms and estates with indigenous shade trees and at higher elevations. The robusto trees are being grown on huge farms that clear the land of all shade trees and indigenous vegetation. This is destroying the habitat for much of the animal wildlife and plant life that inhabits some of the most ecologically sensitive parts of the world: reducing the indigenous plant and wildlife by 75%-90%.
The second event has been the major increase in the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Coffee is now the third most chemically treated crop in the world, with the large robusto plantations putting huge amounts of dangerous chemicals into the soil, ground and surface waters and the ecology’s food chain. There are at least twelve chemicals (known as the dirty dozen) used on a massive level for coffee growing that are banned or highly regulated in industrialized nations. These chemicals are now being used on both the arabica and robusto coffee trees. The net effect has been the infusion of tons of these harmful chemicals into the ground, vegetation, ground and surface water, the drinking water and food of the people in coffee producing areas and infusing these poisons into the entire food chain including you the consumer of these coffees. These chemicals have been tied to birth defects, cancer and a number of other diseases. Directly ingested, some are toxic enough to kill children and adults.
The effect of this tremendous increase in the use of these chemicals has produced more destruction of the flora and fauna of the coffee producing regions that global warming or any other single factor. Dead streams and polluted rivers are becoming the norm in coffee producing areas. For example, the United States’ birdwatchers started documenting the rapid decline of migratory birds that travel between Central and South America and the U.S. Studies have shown that more than 150 species of birds thrive in shade grown organic coffee farms as opposed to less than twenty five in robusto farms. Discovering that the cause was the ‘double whammy’ of destructive robusto coffee growing practices and chemical use, no other than the United States’ Smithsonian Institute stepped in to both establish guidelines for growing ‘bird friendly’ coffee and to help the coffee industry start producing properly shaded coffee with organic methods. A number of individuals and environmental organizations from the United States have also joined this fight to save our environment and health like the Friends of the Earth, the Fair Trade Assn. and numerous organic-minded groups.
There are 107 million Americans who drink coffee on a regular basis with another 57 million occasional coffee drinkers. They consume an average of 1.7 cups per day. If you are an average coffee drinker you will consume approx. 34 gallons of coffee per year. This is the equivalent of the production of 18 coffee trees. These 18 coffee trees will be treated with 11and a half pounds of chemical fertilizers and pesticides each year. By changing to organic shade grown coffees you can make a big difference!
What you can do:
- Ask for strictly organic, fair trade and/or bird friendly coffee whenever you buy coffee
- Drink organic coffee: It tastes better and is better for you
- Tell your friends to buy and drink only organic coffee
- Ask the people at work to drink organic coffee
- Ask restaurants, meetings and events where coffee is served to start using fair trade coffee