The importance coffee has on the global economy
The importance coffee has on the global economy, human rights, and the environmental quality and biodiversity of the tropics is not widely recognized, especially in developed countries where coffee consumption is so far removed from coffee production. In the United States it is common to incorrectly assume that something as seemingly inconsequential as a cup of coffee would have little effect on such important global issues.
Coffee is the second most traded commodity on the planet, the first being petroleum. Coffee production is a multibillion dollar industry, supporting roughly 25 million small farmers growing on over 11 million hectares. The importance of the income generated by coffee is further magnified by the tropical region in which coffee is grown, where the average GDP is significantly lower than countries in the Temperate Zones and where no developed countries exist. Coffee plays an integral role in the economic survival of both individual farmers as well as the developing countries in which they live.
Coffee also plays an important role in developed countries. The world’s largest coffee importer, the United States, spends roughly $4 billion on coffee imports annually and consumes approximately 400 million cups of coffee every day. In the United States, like in most places, coffee is used both as a social drink as well as a mild stimulant, and is known to contain a number of highly beneficial dietary nutrients, such as antioxidants, trigonelline, and quinines. The map below displays the annual coffee consumption per capita for countries with available data.
There are two main taxa of coffee; Coffea Arabica and Coffea Robusta. Coffea Arabica, which is characterized by its mild taste and distinct aroma, is grown in Central America and South America. Coffea Robusta is characterized by its strong, full-bodied taste, and is grown in Africa and Asia. The vast majority of coffee is grown between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, which defines the coffee belt. The map below represents where Coffea robusta (R), Coffea Arabica (A), and combination of the two (M) are grown.
While coffee itself is has no negative environmental impacts, the method in which it is produced potentially does. Coffee production begins on the farm, but there is more than one type of farm for growing coffee plants. Two general methods exist to grow coffee plants; shade-grown and sun-grown, and each method has certain advantages and disadvantages.
Sun-grown coffee involves the coffee plants being planted in direct sunlight. Being exposed to full sunlight all day dramatically increases the yield of coffee beans, but requires large areas of open land. In addition, sun-grown coffee is usually a monoculture crop, heavily dependent on fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and other chemical pollutants which often leach into local watersheds.
Sun-grown coffee also promotes deforestation. In Central America alone, over 2.5 million acres of forests have been cut down to provide space for the farming of monoculture sun-grown coffee. Of the 50 countries with the highest rates of deforestation from 1990 to 1995, 75% of them were large coffee producers. Deforestation increases soil erosion, landslides, atmospheric pollution, and alters the hydrologic cycle. Deforestation also leads to habitat loss, which has dramatically reduced the populations of many species of migratory songbirds. The affects of such large scale deforestation on habitat loss are magnified by the fact that they are located in the Tropical Zone, which makes them among the most biologically diverse forests in the world. The sun-grown method arose in part as a consequence of the green revolution of the 1960’s, and replaced the traditional coffee growing technique of planting in shade.
Shade-grown coffee involves the coffee plants being planted under a tree canopy, which is how the plant grows naturally. The tree canopy creates shade below where the coffee grows, which decreases the growth rate of the coffee plants. Slow-growing coffee plants produce coffee beans at a slower rate, but at a higher quality. In addition, slow-growing coffee plants live longer than fast-growing coffee plants, having to be replanted every 30 years instead of every 6 years for sun-grown coffee.
Shade-grown coffee is considered by many to have less of an impact on the environment than sun-grown coffee. Inter-planting trees with coffee plants provides some important ecological functions. For example, the trees reduce erosion by holding soil together with their roots, as well as creating a biological barrier between the torrential rains common in the Topics and the ground. This barrier absorbs the energy of the falling water, which reduces erosion.
The tree canopy used in shade-grown coffee also fertilizes the soil by the decomposition of the fallen leaves. This source of a constant, natural fertilizer reduces the dependence on artificial fertilizers common in sun-grown coffee. The shade also reduces the prevalence of weeds, reducing the need for herbicides.
Perhaps the most attractive feature of shade-grown coffee to ecologists is not the reduction in pollutants, but the more direct ecological benefits. Allowing multiple species of trees to grow within the coffee crop increases the biodiversity of the area, making the habitat suitable for many insects, animals, and birds. With over 11 million hectares of predominately sun-grown coffee that are essentially ecological deserts, the habitats created using the shade-grown method provide pockets of refuge for wildlife. Shade-grown coffee farms provide some of the last remaining forests of Northern Latin America, providing essential habitat for hummingbirds, swallows, warblers, orioles, tanagers and other native and migratory birds.
Songbirds are particularly charismatic animals for conservation issues, and have played a major role in the investigation of ecological and environmental damages caused by the deforestation often associated with sun-grown coffee. Studies conducted in Mexico and Colombia suggests that 94% to 97% more bird species live in shade-grown coffee farms than in sun-grown coffee farms. The reason for this is because most birds depend heavily on the tree canopy for shelter and food, and there are no trees on sun-grown coffee plantations.
The maps below display the migratory patterns of the Western Tanager (left) and the Baltimore Oriole (right), two of the many migratory bird species that have been reduced in population by tropical deforestation in Central America.
The declining population among many migratory bird species in the United States has raised concern about environmental issues outside of our own country. Multinational efforts to study and preserve habitat is a rare phenomenon, but because the declining bird populations were highly noticeable in the United States, and because migratory birds are such charismatic animals and are closely monitored by bird watchers, awareness was raised about their habitat loss. In some ways, it is because of their migratory nature that much of their remaining habitat still exists.
Because sun-grown coffee is more profitable (due to the higher yield of coffee beans), there must be a public demand for shade-grown coffee in order to encourage farmers to grow coffee in a sustainable, environmentally agreeable way. The United States is a huge consumer of coffee, and as coffee consumers we have the power to choose which kinds of coffee to buy. By purchasing coffee that is grown with minimal impact to the environment, we can support the future use of such farming methods. In this way, we can all help support practices that encourage more environmentally responsible farming techniques.
Some organizations exist to certify coffee that is shade-grown. One of the most well known organizations is the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, which requires (among other things) a minimum of 40% shade cover, ten different species of inter-planted trees, and an appropriate canopy structure. Certifying coffee that has been shade-grown empowers the consumer to support environmentally friendly coffee farms by allowing them to quickly distinguish how the coffee was produced and support the kind that has the least environmental impact.
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“Shade Management Criteria for “Bird Friendly®” Coffee.” Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Smithsonian National Zoological Park. 4 Dec. 2007
“Coffee and the Birds.” The Songbird Foundation. 4 Dec. 2007
“The Problems with “Sun” Coffee.” Coffee and Conservation. 31 Jan. 2006. 4 Dec. 2007
“Coffee Statistics.” E-Imports. 4 Dec. 2007